A confusing set of signals regarding agreements the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has with various entities that allow public hunting and fishing is irritating any number of former Wildlife Division officials.
In a March 28th memorandum the Natural Resources Department announced that its law enforcement agreement with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District – an immensely popular hunting and fishing destination opened to such activity - has “expired” but that “further direction will be given in the near future as the process to renew the Memorandum of Understanding is underway.”
However, several former/retired Ohio Division of Wildlife officials remain deeply disappointed and openly critical that Natural Resources Department did not first hammered out either an extension to any existing memorandum of understanding or developed a new one before the expiration of the existing one.
“Exactly, that should have been a high priority,” said retired Wildlife Division field officer and agent, Jim Abrams.
Even more blunt is Jim Marshall, a now-retired Wildlife Division supervisor for the agency’s District Four (southeast Ohio).
“How do you let that happen unless you’re asleep at the wheel?” Marshall asked rhetorically. “Incompetents. Heads should roll!”
Marshall said further that “in my opinion, this is a giant issue.”
“We worked very hard to maintain good relationships with the agreement areas. Law enforcement was their primary concern, especially use of off road vehicles on areas which caused rutting and erosion on access roads, oil well roads, forestry access. These illegal activities led to increased occurrences of vandalism, dumping, littering, and so on,” Marshall said.”
Adding that “a significant amount of law enforcement time and energy were expended on projects to enforce this section of code,” Marshall says that such agreements are essential cooperative affairs that have proven a win-win for all parties.
“As (the) District Four manager I would give an annual report on arrests made at the annual agreements area conference that we hosted to express our appreciation to the cooperators,” Marshall said. “Back in the golden years this represented (to my recollection) nearly 750,000 acres of hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife viewing access to sportsmen and women.”
If the apparent slow work in progress with the Muskingum Watershed District has former Wildlife Division officials upset, the Natural Resources Department’s official response to the fury almost certainly will cause considerable heartburn.
“ODNR is reviewing all of the agreements for properties that ODNR patrols to ensure that officers are aware of their permitted jurisdiction in each of these areas. Officers are still patrolling the properties and can enforce all wildlife rules and laws and can, of course, act on any felonies,” said Matt EMatt Eiselstein, Natural Resources Department spokesman.
Yet critics of the Department’s believe that what they see as a sluggard’s approach to assembling memorandums of understanding with the Muskingum Watershed District and others is fool-hardy and counter-productive.
They note that Wildlife Division officers do – or, did – more than just look out for felonies on agreement lands as well as solely enforce hunting and fishing regulations on such properties, Marshall says.
“The ability of the Division of Wildlife to provide law enforcement on these areas was the key to getting them open and keeping them open to the public,” says Petering.
“The Division’s ability to provide law enforcement was often the ‘carrot’ in convincing the owners of these agreement areas to allow public access.”
Petering says too, he can recall sitting in meetings, negotiating these agreements where the Wildlife Division’s ability to provide law enforcement was the “difference-maker in getting the agreement signed by the owner.”
“Simply put,” Petering says, “without the ability to offer law enforcement we will struggle to add agreement lands in the future, and conceivably lose some of the ones we presently have.”
Marshall says as well that any number of sections of the state code were both necessary and agreed to by memorandum signers in order for the Wildlife Division to be in compliance with federal aid requirements and they were duly enforced, including matters that were hardly felonies, such as use of bicycles or horseback riding in off-limit areas.
Thus, Marshall says, the agreements added another layer of protection for the lands that otherwise would not exist, noting as well that such agreements have stood the test of time for more than six decades and each needed the final okay from the respective Natural Resources director.
“What I can’t understand is this section of code survived the test of time through Directors and their respective legal counsels for nearly 60 years and now some (deleted) wants to throw that away,” Marshall said angrily. “Each agreement had to go to the Director’s review and signature to be valid.”