Most of the time when I’m writing this page it’s about what I’m doing all alone, with my family or a couple of fishing buddies. But it’s a sunny, beautiful Friday afternoon before Memorial Day. I’m standing in the pavilion at my favorite (Findley) State Park, when a fellow named Jim Zehringer walks up and offers me a firm handshake and a warm smile. I must have won the Outdoor Writer’s Irish Lottery because Jim is not just some camper, he is the top dog of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. All the divisions, State Parks, Watercraft, Wildlife, Forestry, Coastal, Engineering, Oil & Mineral, Surveying, Soil & Water, and Nature Preserves answer to him. He’s a member of the Governor’s cabinet, and for what I do there is no higher authority in Ohio, so when he invites me to walk around Findley with Park Manager Bridget Derrick and see where they might spend some of the $88.5 million the legislature has budgeted for capital improvements, I had to pinch myself.
Before this year, there has never been half as much funding allocated to the state parks for these projects. Jim said this is an unprecedented gift from the legislature, having passed the state senate unanimously, with the help of our own Sen. Gayle Manning. But, personally, I was surprised with the generosity of this “once in a lifetime” type grant. The focus of the parks is clearly on getting the public’s input on how to spend it, and then making the improvements with the absolute minimum disruption to the enjoyment of Ohioans using the parks. By using the on-line survey (http://parks.ohiodnr.gov/improvements) you too can help decide how to shape the future of our state parks, and Lorain County’s own Findley State Park has ranked disproportionately high (2nd overall in the state) as the favorite for campers and day visitors alike. That’s a major reason why the Director is out in our neck of the woods with me today.
One area of focus for improvement at Findley is the shower houses, which are original to the park built in the late 1960′s. Although diligently maintained and regularly updated, they look dated and today’s camper simply wants nicer facilities, a little more counter space, better lighting and appearance. Bridget talked to us about the changes in the way people live leads to changes in what the park provides. For instance, in the 1960′s nobody carried their own water and bottled water was unheard of, so more water fountains were needed around the campgrounds. Today one of the greatest demands is for more campsites with electrical hook-ups (something no camper needed in the 60′s) and Findley hopes to add them soon now that the funding exists.
I asked Jim how something like this happens that the legislature suddenly comes up with such a great thing for the parks and he told me it’s because the people in the wheels of state government today aren’t just the keepers of the state parks, they are the consumers, the users of the parks. His remarks took me back to 1989 when I was a journalism student at Ohio State University, working on a class project and unable to get any comments from public officials who didn’t want to talk to you unless you represented a big paper or TV station. The night before my project was due the phone rang, and I it was my actual U.S. Representative just back from D.C.! I got my quotes from him but the conversation quickly deteriorated as we ended up gabbing about fishing in the local state park. We don’t exchange fishing tales much anymore because that Congressman has moved on and is pretty busy as Governor John Kasich! (Yes, it’s a real story and I can prove it!)
Bill Martin, President of Friends of Findley State Park, said he runs into a lot of people who say, “Findley, yeah, I used to go there when I was a kid!” and are drawn back to the park now that they have families, or grandchildren, of their own. “That’s the great thing about Findley, we create the memories!” and although the Director and everyone I talked was clear to credit the Friends of Findley for making our park great, Bill calls Park Manager Briget Derrick a godsend.