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Eastern Hellbender Project Pitched to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

In this June 18, 2014, photo, Rod Williams, a Purdue University associate professor of herpetology, holds a hellbender that he and a team of students collected in southern Indiana's Blue River near Corydon, Ind. (AP Photo/Rick Callahan)

The Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation district went through a long road to get a proposal to take over a piece of land and protect the eastern hellbender on the governor’s desk.

Now, thanks to some help from state Rep. Ron Ferguson, R-Wintersville, Gov. Mike DeWine’s signature is the last thing needed for the project to become a reality.

“We’ve been working on the project for six years,” said Mark Nelson, board chair of the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District. “It had been four years of red tape, basically, that Ferguson was able to cut through to get it to the governor’s desk.”

Permission for the governor to transfer the land to the district was included in House Bill 74, the state transportation budget, passed by both chambers of the Legislature in March. The process to get there, though, goes back to the district first beginning to work with the Ohio Rail Development Commission, which currently owns the land which previously belonged to the former Conrail.

The commission received the currently unused 367 acres in the 1990s. A survey process following initial talks with the ORDC took about two years, Nelson said, about four years prior to the legislative action.

Local biologists determined the more than three miles of stream corridor on the property to be one of the largest known nesting sites of the state-endangered salamander in the state, prompting the push to preserve it.

“We see it as an asset to the community to actually have a nature preserve right here in Jefferson County that is able to be managed by local government,” Nelson said.

Nelson called the eastern hellbender a “special animal,” pointing out it’s the largest amphibian in the U.S. and among the largest in the world.

Information on the creature from the district’s website says it can grow more than 2 feet in length, weigh more than 2 pounds and lives under large rocks in clean streams.

“It’s indicative of clean water because it only lives in areas that have clean water, which is a great thing for our watershed,” Nelson said.

He said eggs from the nesting site have been used by the state to help re-populate other areas of the state.

For Ferguson, having the opportunity to have local people heading the conservation of the species’ local habitat was a driver in him wanting to help the district.

DeWine was asked about the project during his tour of the Jefferson County Health Department’s vaccination clinic in the Fort Steuben Mall on Monday. Though he said he could not speak to the project specifically, his comments seemed to echo the sentiment of Ferguson.

“I’m not going to talk about this one, but my general philosophy is that if we have land that can be being used for economic development or other purposes by the local community, we want to free that up,” DeWine said.

“That is a general principle. This is a state of local government, this is a state of communities. So, the more we can empower local communities, the better off we are as a state.

“If the people of Jefferson County, this area, know this part of the state better, they know the people better … they’re the ones that should be driving all these things.”

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