Wednesday, February 7, 2018

REVAMPED ENDING/Ohio Wildlife Division forced to retreat on sportsmen club grant changes

In a back-peddling move by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and its Ohio Division of Wildlife, a popular program that supports sportsmen/conservation groups’ outreach efforts remains in tact.

Credit the 180-degree turn-around by intense lobbying by sportsmen’s and conservation groups as well as efforts by some state legislators who hold the all-important trump cards of politics and agency-funding approval.

About one month ago the Natural Resources Department and the Wildlife Division unveiled a revamped plan whereby local sportsmen/conservation clubs would receive funding for such activities as youth and veteran fishing outings, expanded hunter education programming, outdoors introductory activities for women and minorities, and similar hands-on engagements.

The two state agencies had informed the clubs that total monies for the program would be slashed to no more than $500,000, annually down from the minimum promised several years ago of at least $750,000 and sometimes which had seen as much as $1 million.

Grant-qualifying clubs also would see a reduction in the dollar amount they’d each get for approved projects with further curbs on what the money could be used for during an event. In many cases clubs had bought things such as themed tee-shirts or ball-caps as token premiums along with buying food items served at free lunches and snacks for the students and other program attendees.

The money for the so-named “Conservation Club Grant Program” is derived from federal excises taxes paid on firearms, ammunition, fishing reels and rods, archery tackle and other such commodities. The federal government than doles out the dollars to the various states and territories based upon a formula that enfolds a state’s physical size and number of licensed hunters and anglers.

From there the states distribute the money based on an application process.

In Ohio, the money was in lieu of the dollars that clubs at one time received for their distribution of hunting and fishing licenses and game law digests to local license-issuing agents. When the state went to a computerized license-issuing system that necessity was discontinued. The state consequently developed a different system whereby clubs could still receive money in order to accomplish their important recruitment/retention/reactivation projects.

However, the National Resources Department and the Division of Wildlife changed the rules of the grant-awarding game; all without first seeking input from the impacted clubs. Instead, the two agencies conducted a series of informational meetings that basically were intended to inform the clubs that this is the way things are going to be; a move that did not go over well with the conservation/sportsmen community.

Club officials were stung by the swiftness of the changes and the lack of being consulted. They also sought help from state legislators; a group of elected officials who did not take kindly to what they perceived to be a heavy-handed approach to their constituents by the Kasich Administration.

Consequently, in a February 6 letter to the state’s conservation/sportsmen’s clubs the Wildlife Division’s chief Mike Miller announced that the program’s initial requirements and fund-distribution system would remain intact after all, much to the delight of some who helped shepherd the grant program from the beginning.

“These meetings were well attended, and a number of opinions and options were shared on how to help make the grant program more successful,” Miller wrote in his letter.

“The takeaway was that we have passionate sportsmen and women all across the state, and working together we can continue to preserve Ohio’s outdoors traditions.”

Then without really acknowledging that the Natural Resources Department and Wildlife Division were taken out back to the political and sportsmens’ woodshed, Miller said also “As the chief of the ODNR Division of Wildlife it is my responsibility to take everything into consideration and utilize the money in the most effective and efficient way we can.”

Miller then went on to list what he described as changes to the Conservation Club Grant program for 2018. These memorandum notes really are not changes but rather the status quo of what was done prior to the agency’s attempted – and now aborted - program overhaul.

Which has made sportsmen such as Jim Marshall very happy.

Marshall was the Wildlife Division’s assistant chief from 2007 to 2010 and also the agency’s acting chief for about seven months in 2010. In all, the now-retired Marshall was employed by the Wildlife Division for 31 years. He likewise was a major contributing cog in the grant program’s start-up machinery.

“I am very happy about all of this,” Marshall said. “This has always been money that’s been promised to the clubs made after the end to the service fee they collected for distributing hunting and fishing licenses. These clubs used that money for important projects that sought to recruit and retain hunters and fishermen.”

Marshall said the matter never should have reached critical mass in the first place; rather the Natural Resources Department and the Wildlife Division should have first consulted with the affected conservation-sportsmen clubs.

A key to the Natural Resources and Wildlife Division retreat, Marshall said as well, was that a number of sportsmen began contacting their state elected officials and complained bitterly about the Department/Division mulish approach and the dire impact the changes would have on the clubs’ programs.

At that point resistance to the clubs’ complaints began to crumble, Marshall said.

“They broke a promise we made to the clubs, and I cannot think of a program that has done more good than has this grant program” Marshall said.

An additional incentive to the Natural Resources and Wildlife Division’s retreat, Marshall said, came when Lawrence and Gallia County sportsman contacted their state representative, Rep. Ryan Smith R-93. Smith also is chairman of the powerful Ohio House Finance Committee.

Smith approached the Natural Resources Department and Wildlife Division to set up a meeting where the representative said he “expressed my frustration” at the changes that would seriously impact recruitment/retention/return programs he’s personally familiar with.

“I told them that the local programs for kids and veterans and others are important to me,” Smith said. “I’m not against statewide R-3 programs at all but they cannot come at the expense of what is being done now, especially in my district.”

Smith said he requested that the Natural Resources Department and Wildlife Division really “needed to fix” its new program with a return to the original system being the best option.

“To their credit they did fix it,” Smith said.

- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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