Seven Ohioans commemorated with top conservation honors at state fair

Horace "Jim" Davidson. (Submitted photo).

COLUMBUS — Ohioans who have dedicated their lives to the conservation and preservation of Ohio’s natural resources received top honors from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources July 27. 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. 

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 this year’s inductions, the number of people presented with this honor is 183. 


Horace “Jim” Davidson, of Columbus, has spent 55 years protecting Ohio’s natural resources. During his time leading the Columbus Audubon Society, Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks and 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. 

Davidson 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. 

He 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 DeSanto
Robert DeSanto. (Submitted photo)

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. 

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. 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 men and women wanting to learn more about the sport of hunting. 

DeSanto’s list of accolades 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. 


At 67, 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. 

A few years later, Gatewood became one of the founding members of the Buckeye Trail Association. She helped establish the first 20 miles of the Buckeye Trail, which now spans 1,450 miles around Ohio. 

Those miles began in Hocking County, where 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 the last 18 years of her life, she hiked more than 10,000 miles. 

April 27 has been designated as Grandma Emma Gatewood Day in Ohio. She was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame and received 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. 


James F. Kerr
James F. Kerr. (Submitted photo).

James F. 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. After retirement, Kerr co-founded the Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center. Kerr not only secured funding for the center, but designed and built many of the displays, and even donated specimens from his own collection.

Since its opening in 2011, the center has given more than 100,000 people the opportunity to learn about Ohio’s wildlife. Kerr donated 15,000 volunteer hours from the center’s inception to its completion. 

Kerr 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. 


Steve Pollick
Steve Pollick. (Submitted photo).

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. 

His commitment to conservation 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
Janine Rybka. (Submitted photo).

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.” 

One of Rybka’s most lasting legacies is the conversion of a former dredge disposal site into the 88-acre Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. 


Ray Zehler 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 and care of wildlife, fish, forests and other natural resources. Eventually becoming president of the organization, Zehler rallied for political support and raised funds for IWLA and for scholarships so students could attend OSU’s School of Natural Resources. 

Zehler 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, including Conservationist of the Year, Outstanding Service and Lifetime Achievement awards. 

Cardinal Awards

In addition to the Hall of Fame inductions, ODNR also presented the Cardinal Award to Theresa Dirksen, Mark Hoenigman, Loyd Marshall and Arley Owens. 

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.” 

Dirksen, of Celina, 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. 

Dirksen has also promoted best practices for watershed management, erosion control, soil testing, habitat improvement and general education efforts geared towards the public. 

Hoenigman, of Novelty, 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. The organization promotes best management practices for maintaining healthy trees, safety on the job and delivering quality tree care to the public. 

Marshall, of Farmdale, 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. He 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.  

Owens, of Reynoldsburg, is an environmental leader and recycling advocate who has been recognized at the local, state and national levels. 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. 

While with the ODNR’s former Division of Recycling & Litter Prevention, Owens 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.


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