COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohioans who have dedicated their lives to the conservation and preservation of Ohio’s natural resources received top honors this afternoon from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Family, friends, and fairgoers watched as ODNR Director Mary Mertz inducted seven people into the Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame and awarded four others with the department’s Cardinal Award.
“We are fortunate to have Ohioans who have committed their lives to promote and protect our state’s natural resources,” Director Mertz said. “We seek not only to honor these individuals for their passion and dedication to conservation, but also to elevate their efforts so that future generations are inspired to become equally amazing stewards of Ohio’s natural world.”
The Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame has a long legacy in the state of Ohio. The award was created in 1966 to celebrate individuals, past or present, who have made significant contributions to protecting Ohio’s natural resources. With today’s inductions, the number of people presented with this honor is 183.
Horace “Jim” Davidson
Jim Davidson has spent 55 years dedicating his time to protecting Ohio’s natural resources. During his time leading the Columbus Audubon Society, Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks, the ODNR Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, Davidson spearheaded conservation efforts in central Ohio. His work is still enjoyed today at Rhododendron Cove Nature Preserve in southern Fairfield County, home to the largest native population of the state threatened great rhododendron in Ohio. He also led the establishment of the Ohio Natural Areas and Scenic Rivers Endowment Fund with the Columbus Foundation, providing funding opportunities that promote preservation of Ohio’s rivers and natural areas. Jim donated a 20-acre site in 2001 to Delaware County to the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks in order to protect and manage wetland butterflies.
In addition to his work as a full-time doctor, Davidson has volunteered time to share his passion for the natural world with others. As one of Ohio’s most well-known and respected naturalists, the Columbus resident has led hundreds of excursions, events, workshops, and other gatherings to educate people about the importance of natural resources.
Davidson has received several honors throughout his career including the Columbus Audubon Society’s Great Egret Award and The Wheaton Club Distinguished Service Award.
Robert “Bob” DeSanto has spent more than 50 years advocating for hunters, anglers, conservationists, and outdoor enthusiasts. His love of the outdoors began during his time as a seasonal ranger for the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. From there, DeSanto found ways to make others feel his passion, gaining public support for outdoor improvements in and around Ashland County. He paved the way for the creation of Wildlife Ashland, a grassroots organization that supported ODNR’s plan to create the Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area. Today, the area is a must-see site for hunting, trapping, and birding. Funk Bottoms offers 1,536 acres of public land and water for the enjoyment of people living in northeastern Ohio and beyond. DeSanto also played a key role in creating the Ashland County Park District; He was a crucial voice in the acquisition of the park land and keeping the park open to activities such as hunting and fishing.
The Ashland, Ohio attorney has spent five decades as a voice for Ohio Sportsmen. He played a major role in the creation of the Ashland Pheasants Forever Chapter and the Friends of the NRA banquet. He is a member of the Ashland County Wildlife Conservation League and led the movement for the first “hunting University” in Ashland County for both men and women wanting to learn more about the sport of hunting. Bob’s list of accolades is long and includes the 2017 Recipient Samaritan Heart of Giving Award, 2007 Recipient Tribute Award from Ashland County Park District and Pheasants Forever, and the 1976 War Veteran Bar Association Award.
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood
At 67 years old, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became an inspiration for women hikers in Ohio and beyond. In 1955, with just a pair of Converse sneakers, she became the first woman to solo hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Her thirst for knowledge and experience in the outdoors only grew from there. A few years later, Grandma Gatewood became one of the founding members of the Buckeye Trail Association. She helped establish the first 20 miles of the popular Buckeye Trail, which now spans 1,450 miles around Ohio. Those miles began in Hocking County, where Grandma Gatewood continued to share her love of hiking. She held annual hikes through Hocking Hills, inspiring 2,500 people to join her in her final year. In an outdoor activity dominated by men, Grandma Gatewood encouraged women to hit the trail. In the last 18 years of her life, she hiked more than 10,000 miles.
During her life and after her death, Grandma Gatewood was honored in countless ways. April 27 has been designated as Grandma Emma Gatewood Day in the state of Ohio. She was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame and received accolades such as the Ohio State Conservation Award and Governor’s Community Action award. The Buckeye Trail Association and Ohio History Connection, with the Village of Cheshire, placed a historical marker along the Ohio River town in her honor. The marker displays her many accomplishments and a poem entitled, “The Reward of Nature,” which Gatewood wrote during one of her hikes.
James F. Kerr
Jim Kerr spent more than five decades trying to spark curiosity about Ohio’s wildlife. He did so for 30 years as a teacher at Beaver Local High School in Lisbon, Ohio, where he was praised for his deep understanding of field biology, as well as his innovative and patient teaching style. After retirement, Kerr found a new way to educate people about the natural world – as a naturalist. He co-founded the Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center, a place where people could come and learn about wildlife with hands-on experiences. Kerr not only secured funding for the center, but designed and built many of the displays, and even donated specimens from his own collection to add to the visitor experience. Since its opening in 2011, the center has given more than 100,000 people the opportunity to learn about Ohio’s native wildlife, tree identification, wildflowers, backyard habitat gardening, and more. Kerr donated 15,000 volunteer hours, from the center’s inception to its completion, to make it a place for people inspire learning and love of Ohio’s natural world.
Kerr has been highly commended in his career. He has received awards as The American Legion Educator of the Year, the Ohio State Parks Chief’s Award, and the Annual Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Wildlife Conservation award. He is also a recipient of the 2006 Ohio Department of Natural Resources Cardinal Award for Outstanding Achievement.
A passionate voice for Ohio sportsmen and the great outdoors, Steve Pollick has spent more than 40 years reporting on Ohio’s natural resources and outdoor recreational opportunities. His love of nature dates back decades—in college he was the recipient of the very first scholarship awarded by the Outdoor Writers of Ohio. Pollick spent decades putting the joy of hunting, fishing, paddling and exploring into print – first for the Toledo Blade and more recently as a columnist for Ohio Outdoor News. Highly respected in his field, Steve’s colleagues regard him as a man of integrity, and a creative storyteller who can make a reader feel as though they are on the lake, in the field, or along the path about which Pollick is writing. His commitment to conservation goes beyond the written word, which includes serving as a board member of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
Pollick has been a member of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio since 1987 and has been awarded the Lou Klewer – George Laycock Award, considered to be the highest honor that any OWO member can receive. He also is a recipient of an ODNR Cardinal Award.
Janine Rybka spent 20 years bringing nature into an urban setting. As Executive Director of the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District, she transformed the office from a budget-challenged and understaffed organization into a conservation leader. A champion of wetlands and supporter of the H2Ohio program, her district created a wetland inventory for Cuyahoga County and promoted wetland restoration efforts. She implemented the county’s storm drain stenciling program, which engages community volunteers to help educate the public about the damage contaminated storm-drain water causes to area streams and Lake Erie.
Rybka also worked to help communities in her district understand how agriculture can impact areas beyond farms. She brought in specialists to promote healthy soils and encourage public participation in urban gardening. This effort produced community gardens in areas considered “food deserts,” providing a ready source of fresh vegetables for neighborhoods in need. One of Rybka’s most lasting legacies is the conversion of a former dredge disposal site into an 88-acre nature preserve. Just east of Burke Lakefront Airport and downtown Cleveland, the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve offers residents and visitors an opportunity to discover a variety of plant and wildlife species thriving within this urban oasis.
Ray Zehler was an advocate for education. He used his love of the natural world and contagious energy for “Outdoor America” to inspire the next generation during his decades of work with The Izaak Walton League- one of America’s oldest and most successful conservation organizations. For more than 50 years, he taught young people about the protection a care of wildlife, fish, forests, and other natural resources. Eventually becoming president of the organization, Zehler rallied for political support, raised funds for IWLA and for scholarships so students could attend OSU’s School of Natural Resources. Zehler was a supporter of ODNR, and the preservation work done by the agency. He played a big role in drawing up the blueprint for the Clean Ohio Fund and focused on the health of Lake Erie, securing a grant to encourage stream quality monitoring,
Known as a man who not only “talked the talk” but also “walked the walk,” Zehler would be seen doing pushups at national conventions for fundraising, or even using his personal truck to pick up trash for a recycling program he was instrumental in initiating.
Zehler received many awards in his lifetime – Conservationist of the Year, Outstanding Service, Lifetime Achievement. His legacy lives on through the Izaak Walton League-Hamilton Chapter, through his children and grandchildren, some of whom still serve the organization and through those young people he led down the path of a life of conservation.
In addition to the Hall of Fame inductions, ODNR also presented the Cardinal Award to four Ohioans. The Cardinal Award, created in 1971, honors individuals and organizations that demonstrate exceptional awareness and concern for ideas reflected in the department’s mission statement, “To ensure a balance tween the wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all.” Cardinal Award recipients have included outdoor writers, educators, farmers, biologists, naturalists, businesses, sporting organization, and volunteers across the state of Ohio.
The Cardinal Award is presented to an individual or organization that demonstrates exceptional awareness and concern for the ideals reflected in the department’s mission statement: To ensure a balance between the wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all. Since 1971, past winners of the Cardinal Award have included volunteers, outdoor writers, educators, naturalists, farmers, biologists, businesses, and outdoor sporting organizations.
Theresa Dirksen has made great efforts and strides to improve the water quality in Grand Lake St. Marys, an area that has long struggled with those issues. As Director of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Mercer County, Dirksen led campaigns advocating for the creation, development, and funding of treatment trains and Stream Restoration Projects. A strong partner and advocate of Governor Mike DeWine’s H2Ohio clean-water initiative, Dirksen has also promoted best practices for watershed management, erosion control, soil testing, habitat improvement, and general education efforts geared towards the public. Dirksen is a resident of Celina, OH.
Often described as one of the most skilled arborists in the United States, Mark Hoenigman has worked closely with ODNR’s Division of Forestry for years. He has made quality tree care not only a career, but also a mission in his life – most recently as the owner of Busy Bee Services near Cleveland. Hoenigman is a leader in the world of forestry, implementing new arboricultural and tree bio-mechanical research practices. He co-founded the Ohio Independent Arborist Association, a nonprofit that builds up the arboricultural community through education, training, and social networking. The organization promotes best management practices for maintaining healthy trees, safety on the job, and delivering quality tree care to the public. The ODNR is grateful for not only Hoenigman’s commitment to and passion for arboriculture, but also his long-time and valued partnership with the ODNR Division of Forestry. Hoenigman is a resident of Novelty, OH.
Loyd Marshall’s enthusiasm for wildlife, especially birds, has long been an inspiration to others and the impetus behind the many volunteer hours he’s generously given to the ODNR Division of Parks & Recreation. Marshall has been volunteering for more than a decade with Ohio State Parks and the Army Corps of Engineers to monitor bluebird boxes. He offers his time to train volunteers and educate the general public on why cavity nesters—like bluebirds, warblers, and owls—are an important resource for conservation in declining habitats. He also monitors man-made nests, keeping meticulous records about species’ populations. Loyd is active in the Ohio Bluebird Society, the Ohio Ornithological Society and North American Bluebird Society, and continues to educate the public on wild-bird conservation. Marshall is a resident of Farmdale, OH.
Arley Owens is an environmental leader and recycling advocate who has been recognized at the local, state, and national levels for his commitment to the environment. As founder and president of Earth Team Green, Owens is working to reach and teach the next generation of Ohioans to protect and respect each other and the environment. His efforts include Earth Team Green’s Eco-thriller comic books. He’s also planning the Reynoldsburg Summit for Sustainability, a collaboration with the Reynoldsburg School District and the City of Reynoldsburg. His passion for conservation began as an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 1980. While with the agency’s former Division of Recycling & Litter Prevention, Owen’s was a major contributor to several environmentally focused campaigns, including Plant Pride Not Litter, Lucky the Lady Bug, and Recycle with Ohio Zoos. He also was instrumental in helping produce Addy Award-winning radio shows and Television PSAs. In 2014, he was recognized by the Association of Ohio Recyclers as someone who has made a significant impact on the state’s recycling industry. Owens was elected to the National Recycling Coalition’s Board of Directors in 2021. Owens is a resident of Reynoldsburg, OH.
ODNR ensures a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all. Visit the ODNR website at ohiodnr.gov.