The Vinton Furnace State Forest, a 12,000-acre park west of Athens, is rich in both history and wildlife, but it also poses a burden for the economically depressed county where it is located.
The park has the largest population of bobcats in the state. It also contains the brick ruins of iron furnaces used in the 1800s, along with areas for hiking, camping and hunting in a forest deemed "one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the United States" by Ohio's Department of Natural Resources.
The problem is that the land is nontaxable and significantly cuts into revenue for Vinton County.
"I don't think we'll ever have houses on that property," Vinton County Commissioner Tim Ebert said. "We don't have much of a tax base in this county, so it's been hard to do with what we've got."
With a population of just over 13,000, Vinton is the smallest county by population in Ohio. It is also one of the poorest, with more than 20 percent of the county's citizens living below the poverty line. Those two factors put a strain on the local government's ability to generate revenue and provide services to its citizens.
With the forest off-limits for any property construction, it limits the county's ability to grow the tax base.
"We rely heavily on our tax base," Vinton County Auditor Cindy Owings Waugh said. "Our tax is very small because thousands of acres are being exempt."
The parks do provide some revenue to the county, although it is not through preservation. The ODNR cuts down parts of the state's forests, and then 65 percent of those sales go to the county and local government, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
"16.25 percent of the sale goes to the county government, 16.25 percent goes to the local township, and 32.5 percent goes to the local school district, which adds up to 65 percent," Greg Guess of the ODNR Division of Forestry said. "The remaining 35 percent goes to the division of forestry and the state forest fire fund."
There are limits on how much forest can be cut down, which limits the amount of revenue the county receives. The ODNR often cuts trees in different areas, which makes the revenue from the "stumpage fee" inconsistent.
"If they cut in one area, the local township will benefit, but (the ODNR) might not go back to that township for five years," Waugh said. "It fluctuates greatly, so we don't even budget the money. And they don't let you know ahead of time (if they'll be logging nearby)."
Both Waugh and Ebert agreed that a good way to make up the difference would be to increase tourism to the area.
"We need to tap into tourism like Hocking County does," Waugh said. "They're collecting more than $1 million in lodging alone."
Ebert said the state was looking to add trails for ATVs in the park, which he hoped would draw more people to Vinton County's parks.
"I think they'll pay the state to use the trails," Ebert said. "But I think local businesses will help from getting the word out and people visiting."
Waugh added that another way to help Vinton County would be to receive more funding assistance from the state.
"I think the state is starting to look at tax reliance," she said. "A place like Delaware County has a high tax base, they can generate a lot of revenue across a bunch of people. There's some new language in (legislation) that has to do with tax reliability, and that's a step in the right direction."