By Randy Cunningham
In the closing days of 2022, there was a break-in and theft at the Statehouse of one of the most prized possessions that the people of Ohio can claim as their own: the state parks and public lands of Ohio.
Technically, we still own these lands, but in fact, they have been stolen from us by the oil and gas industries of Ohio who cleverly slipped into House Bill 507 (a bill on poultry regulation) a measure that requires that the state open those lands up to fracking. It was a big, fat gift from legislators to the oil and gas industry for past campaign contributions. Very few Ohioans know about it. And that is just fine with the denizens of Capitol Square.
Ohioans love their public lands. We love them to death. The public lands of America, including those in Ohio, are a fundamental democratic achievement. The reason we cherish them is that they are open for use by everyone, regardless of your wealth, your race or ethnicity, or your faith. But while we love them, they are looked upon by those who own and run Ohio as nothing more than another opportunity for profit. This is a fundamental conflict in our attitudes towards our parks and lands.
Now, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has solemnly sworn that the exploitation being planned will not harm these parks and public lands, nor compromise our enjoyment of them. They tell us, “Don’t worry!”
There are several good reasons to take what they tell you with a very small grain of salt. One reason is a classic in the field of public policy, which has been documented for decades. It is called regulatory capture. This is where agencies created to regulate businesses in the public interest end up held hostage by the very enterprises they were supposed to police. The ODNR is a classic example of this phenomenon.
Add to this the fact that the Ohio Statehouse has, since the earliest days of the state, been a wholly owned subsidiary of energy companies and private utilities. They write the legislation and the regulations that the ODNR administers, they make the agency dependent on licensing fees from industry by chronically underfunding it, and then carefully place their representatives throughout the agency to mind the store.
That is why you should worry about what is going to happen to our public lands under the regime of HB 507.
The people of Ohio love their parks and public lands, and it is now up to us to protect those parks and public lands from the looters. Be extra vigilant when you visit your lands. If you see something, say something to the park administration, file a complaint, even if you know it will be ignored. Most important of all, don’t think you can protect what is yours by yourself. You need to work with others in the environmental community to let the looters know that they are being watched. The freedom to enjoy our public lands is not free. It is up to us to fight for them.
Randy Cunningham is a local activist and writer and a member of the Buckeye Environmental Network. He is the author of “Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985″ (Belt Books).
This post was first published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 17, 2023.