SALEM, Ohio — The last of Ohio’s state-run nurseries — a long-standing source for millions of tree seedlings that rebuilt Ohio forests — is set to close.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources earlier this month proposed closing the Marietta State Nursery, citing increased costs coupled with a steep decrease in seedling sales over the past few years.
The department says resources will be redirected toward programs that return a greater benefit to Ohioans, including service forestry, urban forestry, fire and state forest programs.
The proposal has been submitted to the Department of Administrative Services and is pending review and approval. If approved, the nursery would close Nov. 8, according to Andy Ware, assistant chief of the state’s division of forestry.
“Over an extended period of time, despite constant promotional and administrative support, seedling sales have continued to decline,” Ware said.
Ware said annual sales have steadily dropped from 6 million trees in 1997, to nearly 4 million in 2003, to this year’s low of less than 1.5 million seedlings.
Last year, the nursery lost approximately $250,000, according to one state staffer.
The sales decline proved costly in other ways, too, pushing the state out of eligibility for federal cost-share dollars that helped keep seedlings affordable, according to Ware.
The state made cuts over time to deal with declining sales, including closing the Green Springs State Nursery in 1984 and the Zanesville State Nursery in 2003.
The Marietta site was the last state-run nursery operating in the Buckeye State. Its closure will put the division of forestry completely out of the seedling nursery business.
“It’s a tough day for us with this proposal,” Ware said.
The Marietta State Nursery began operations in 1925 as a provider of seedlings for reforesting land purchased as part of the state forest system.
Ware said “some pretty far-sighted folks” reacted at that time to former President Teddy Roosevelt’s pleas to Americans to avoid a timber famine — a potential shortage of lumber to build homes and industry — and reforested certain parts of the country.
At the time, Ohio was only about 10 percent forested, Ware said.
For more than 80 years, the nursery supported tree planting on state forests and private lands, giving landowners and state foresters easy access to some 70 varieties of affordable seedlings, from dogwoods and buckeyes to pines, maples and oaks.
In fact, Ware said the state nurseries have provided some half a billion seedlings since the 1920s — enough to cover 1 million acres of ground, slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Today, Ohio is more than 30 percent forested, according to the state.
The seedlings have also been used for wildlife habitat development, erosion control and windbreaks, and other conservation projects.
“The question is, in today’s market, should the state be producing seedlings,” Ware said. “It was a tough decision, but no, we shouldn’t be.”
The closure will affect eight permanent and approximately 20 seasonal employees. The state is “helping them find decent jobs,” according to Ware.
He said surrounding states have state nurseries still in operation, and the state is working on formal arrangements with them to provide Ohio landowners and foresters a convenient supply of seedlings.
“We have many people who have a long-term relationship with us buying seedlings. We certainly share in their disappointment” in the closure, Ware said.
Ware said it’s “highly unlikely” the Department of Administrative Services would deny the division of forestry’s closure proposal.
In addition, the Department of Natural Resources will also be forced to cut an additional $2.99 million from the budget to comply with Gov. Ted Strickland’s $540 million statewide budget reduction for 2009.