Terry Van Offeren remembers when vast stretches of Gallia County were a “moonscape,” ravaged by the effects of historic coal mining.
“I saw an aerial photo and thought, Gosh, how are we ever going to get this reclaimed?” he says.
Terry is celebrating his “second retirement,” leaving Rural Action after seven years as a contractor in the Watersheds program. His first retirement was from a 35-year career at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in the Mineral Resources division. In that time, he’s seen what reclamation can do in eastern and southeastern Ohio.
“It took phase after phase of work over the years, but those areas were reclaimed,” he says, noting that similar reclamations have occurred throughout Ohio’s coal region. While plenty of reclamation work remains, Ohio has come a long way, and Terry played a key role in helping to shepherd these transitions from moonscape to grassland to reforestation.
“One of the biggest things Terry brought is that he knows everyone,” says Rural Action Northern Programs Director Marissa Lautzenheiser, who admits she got “emotional” when Terry told her he was retiring. “He’s done abandoned mine land work for decades. There isn’t a person that Terry couldn’t find a number for and just call up. He did that time and again, and those were the most valuable partnerships that we developed.”
Terry retired from ODNR in 2012 when changes to their retirement system made that a financially prudent thing to do. He spent several months painting the exterior of his house, took a job delivering holiday packages with UPS, worked at an outdoor gear store in Licking County, and eventually got a call from Mitch Farley, who was on the Rural Action Board of Directors at the time.
Rural Action had received a grant from the Cargill Foundation for a watershed restoration planning initiative in Appalachian Ohio. Mitch and then-CEO Michelle Decker brought Terry in as a contractor to manage that grant, and he has continued working with Rural Action for the past 7 years.
“What came out of that work was the formation of the Appalachian Ohio Watershed Council, which still exists today,” Terry says. “We were looking at collective impact, a social change method that gathered stakeholders together to identify regional goals, objectives, strategies, and ultimately activities related to those goals.”
More recently, Terry has worked on the AML Pilot Program, which now is called the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program. The emphasis still is on reclaiming abandoned mine land, but the program takes it a step further, looking to establish economic opportunities around the reclamation.
For example, Terry worked on the D.O. Hall Business Center project in eastern Ohio, a $950,000 initiative to stabilize land under the center, which allowed Federal Express to expand its operation from an adjacent parcel to the newly reclaimed site.
“The real shift I’ve seen in the program is that recreation is playing such a large role now from an economic development standpoint,” Terry says, citing the Baileys Trail and Moonville Rail Trail projects as examples.
“Rural Action’s Watershed team has been lucky to work so closely with Terry over the years and enjoy many successes and great times together,” says Michelle Shively, Director of Project Development at True Pigments, a Rural Action social enterprise working to clean streams by turning iron oxide pollution into a marketable pigment. “It’s hard to fully measure the impact he has had on mineland reclamation in Ohio.”
Why retire now? Maybe it’s how lonely Terry’s golf clubs are, sitting mostly unused in the garage of his Granville home. Or perhaps it’s a chance to work on a Lake Erie cottage that he inherited four years ago. And then there’s perhaps the most compelling reason of all: With his son and daughter now making their way in the world after college, Terry and his wife want to be able to travel to visit them and see other destinations.
“I’m more ready to retire now than I was in 2012,” Terry says. “I can’t say I’ve fully accepted my decision, but I know it’s the right decision for me right now. I would like to thank Rural Action for providing me with the opportunity to contribute to its mission. The last seven years have been a two-way street. I was given a chance to share my experiences in many new ways, but just as importantly, I gained a greater understanding of the organization and established many new working relationships and friendships that I will always carry with me.”