Special to 1812Blockhouse

The state of Ohio features a diverse landscape—with rolling hills, winding streams, and a Great Lake—and for 75 years the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has been charged with the protection and conservation of that landscape. This year, the department will celebrate this milestone with special programming, a look back at the agency’s history, and special events.

“ODNR is dedicated to protecting all the natural wonders that make Ohio the heart of it all,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said. “For generations, a staff of passionate people have worked at ODNR to accomplish this mission and keep Ohio beautiful for both residents and visitors.”

Throughout its history, ODNR has served to safeguard Ohio’s trees, native plants, geological features, mineral resources, wildlife, and waters. The department has also worked to capture the joy of the great outdoors through many recreational endeavors such as blossoming our Ohio State Parks and nature preserves, growing state wildlife areas, and blazing new trails in Ohio’s forests.

This feat has been accomplished through the dedication of hardworking people in the department and its many divisions: Engineering, Forestry, Geological Survey, Mineral Resources Management, Natural Areas and Preserves, Oil and Gas Resources, Parks and Watercraft, Water Resources, and Wildlife; along with ODNR’s offices of Coastal Management, Law Enforcement, and Real Estate and Land Management.

“Celebrating ODNR’s 75th anniversary means looking back at all the incredible achievements this department has made, but it’s also about looking toward the future,” ODNR Director Mary Mertz. “Just as we’ve done for 75 years, ODNR will continue to work on projects the state can be proud of.”

A History of Progress

Every division in ODNR has worked tirelessly over the years to improve different facets of Ohio’s great outdoors and its natural resources. What follows are just a few of the many accomplishments each division has achieved over the years.

Division of Geological Survey 

First established in 1837 as the Ohio Geological Survey, the division has researched and mapped the state’s geology. That research includes bedrock, glacial sediments, industrial minerals, oil-and-gas fields, and other natural resources. As demonstrated by the 2006 release of the award-winning Bedrock Geologic Map of Ohio, the evolution of mapping efforts from hand-drawn paper maps to digital cartography has streamlined data gathering, map production, and delivery and resulted in an array of highly detailed map products made available to Ohioans in various formats.

Division of Wildlife

The Ohio Fish Commission was created by the Ohio General Assembly in 1873 to deal with declining fish populations in Ohio’s inland lakes and streams. In 1949, the commission joined other conservation agencies for the creation of ODNR. At that time, the Ohio populations of deer, walleye, and bald eagles were not doing well. There was no deer hunting season in 1949 because of a low population, walleye in Lake Erie were experiencing a steep decline, and there were likely less than 20 bald eagle nests in all of Ohio. Now, 75 years later, these three species appear on the Division of Wildlife logo to represent their great comeback stories.

Division of Forestry

The Division of Forestry has been working hard to restore forest lands in the state. The division continues to expand its state forest system to serve as an example of well-managed forests. In addition, the division developed a Service Forestry Program to assist private landowners in developing healthy forests of their own. These efforts have been a key part of Ohio’s forest cover increasing from around 12% in 1949 to more than 30% forest cover today. As a testament to this growing forest management activity—which includes sustainable timber harvests—the division “grew” the Trees to Textbooks program. This program distributes revenue received from timber harvests within state forests. Currently, more than $39 million has been distributed to local governments.

Division of Mineral Resources Management

The division is a national leader in addressing the safety of miners, citizens, and in the reclamation of mined lands left unreclaimed prior to enactment of state and federal mining regulations. Through its regulatory program derived from federal and state law, the division protects environmental resources, including aquifers, streams, and wetlands; the state’s infrastructure, and private property during and after mining for coal and other mineral resources.

Division of Water Resources

The division was formed at the time ODNR was created to ensure the wise management of Ohio’s water resources. The Division of Water Resources sets out to ensure Ohio has an adequate water supply by overseeing regulatory guidance and providing water resources information to the public. The division also addresses public safety issues associated with flooding, provides floodplain management guidance to communities, agencies, and citizens, and is responsible for implementing and enforcing Ohio rules, regulations and contracts related to water supply and water resource development. In addition, the division administers the Dam Safety Program throughout Ohio, which began in 1963, and was developed to help Ohio avoid a series of fatal dam failures that plagued other states around the country about a decade after the program’s creation.

Division of Parks and Watercraft

Ohio’s State Park system stands as a living testament to decades of unwavering commitment to safe, family-friendly fun, free-spirited exploration, and the boundless beauty that nature has to offer. Established in 1949, Ohio State Parks have been a recreation destination, offering free entrance, a wide array of outdoor adventures, and diverse overnight lodging experiences that include campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. In the mid-1960s, a $100-million state parks development program was launched, marking the groundbreaking for lodges like Burr Oak and Hueston Woods. Ohio’s investment in state parks continues through projects like the newest lodge at the iconic Hocking Hills State Park and the upcoming Great Council State Park. Ohio’s recreational user experience has been further enhanced through the safety programs, boating infrastructure improvements, and enforcement activities of the Division of Watercraft. Known today as the Division of Parks and Watercraft, the agency is experiencing record use of enthusiasts traversing our state parks and boating on Ohio’s amazing waterways.

Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management 

The Division of Oil and Gas has been protecting public health, safety, and the environment and assuring the conservation of Ohio’s oil and gas resources for over 58 years. From the Morrow County drilling boom in the 1960s to the Marcellus/Utica Shale drilling activity occurring present day, the division has overseen the orderly and efficient development of Ohio’s oil and gas reserves. Today, Ohio ranks seventh of the states in natural gas production. Since the division’s inception, the scope of its authority has expanded beyond well permitting and inspection to include orphan well plugging, underground injection control, seismicity, emergency response, and waste management from oil and gas operations.

Division of Natural Areas and Preserves

For nearly 50 years, the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves has been protecting Ohio’s most unique, endangered, and beautiful habitats and rare native species. A system of 145 state nature preserves, numerous natural areas, and 15 scenic rivers protects significant native aquatic and terrestrial features of Ohio. The division’s scenic rivers and preserves programs have inspired similar programs in other U.S. states.

Office of Coastal Management

The Office of Coastal Management Program was federally approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1997 and created to provide financial and technical assistance, resource protection, education, research, stewardship, and outreach services to fulfill its mission to protect and manage Ohio’s Lake Erie coastal resources. In addition, the office also manages the Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, which was designated by NOAA in 1980.  In partnership with NOAA and the USFWS, the office has managed 50 state and federal coastal land conservation grants to acquire, preserve, and protect more than 25,740 acres of critical coastal habitat along the Ohio Lake Erie coastline.

Division of Engineering

Over the years, the Division of Engineering has been the leader in completing many great projects such as the Hocking Hills State Park Lodge and Conference Center, the Alum Creek State Park Marina Building, and the rehabilitation of the Buckeye Lake Dam. In 2015, an assessment found the earthen dam at Buckeye Lake to be at risk of “catastrophic failure.” The division quickly jumped into action by reorganizing the staff and implementing new delivery methods to rehabilitate the dam through the innovative method of “soil mixing.” This award-winning project not only secured the dam, but it ensured that Buckeye Lake would continue to be a place for people to live, work, and play — safely — for many generations.

Office of Law Enforcement

With input from both the Division of Parks and Watercraft, and the Division of Wildlife, the Office of Law Enforcement develops and implements state required and specialized division trainings for all ODNR officers. These instructional courses are not only mandatory for an officer to maintain their peace officer certification, but they are also tailored to provide real-life scenario training. These courses prepare ODNR’s law enforcement officers for the unique emergencies they may encounter while protecting the public at Ohio’s parks, waterways, forests, nature preserves, and wildlife areas.

Office of Real Estate and Land Management 

The office, also known as REALM, provides real estate services and solutions for ODNR’s landholding and natural resource-based programs. This includes services associated with land surveying, historical and cultural resources, environmental review and support and the administration of several recreational grant programs. Over the years, REALM has secured several large-scale acquisitions for environmental stewardship, wildlife conservation, and outdoor recreation. That includes the Jesse Owens State Park and Appalachian Hills Wildlife area, a 57,273-acre swath of land purchased from American Electric Power between 2018 and 2021. This acquisition allows Ohioans to use the land for many activities including hunting, fishing, and stargazing.

Continuing the Legacy of Stewardship

Among the more recent success stories is the creation of Gov. DeWine’s H2Ohio initiative, a multi-state agency effort to improve water quality in the state. ODNR’s role with H2Ohio is to create new wetlands in the Lake Erie basin to filter nutrients and sediment that flow into waterways. That program has since expanded to create wetlands across the whole state.

ODNR has also gone above and beyond to establish special projects that ensure a connection with local communities and the education of future leaders. In 2019, ODNR created the Conservation Teen Advisory Council (ConTAC) to empower Ohio’s future conservation leaders. ConTAC gives a diverse group of teens the opportunity to explore careers in natural resources, develop valuable networking and leadership skills, and provide recommendations to enhance outdoor outreach.

ODNR will host events throughout 2024 to commemorate its 75th anniversary across all the divisions. Commemorative stickers marking the milestone will be handed out at ODNR’s Winter Hike Series. The department will also schedule tree plantings and a birthday bash for the occasion, as well as the release of a 75th anniversary book to walk people through the rich history of ODNR.

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