Stafford: ODNR gives writer chance to fulfill childhood dream

Brian Plasters stands with promotional cutout from his newspaper days along with his children, left to right, Kate, 12, Vera, 8, and Lucy,10. CONTRIBUTED
Brian Plasters stands with promotional cutout from his newspaper days along with his children, left to right, Kate, 12, Vera, 8, and Lucy,10. CONTRIBUTED

Gandalf did OK with Bilbo and Frodo.

And thanks to Hermione and a carrot-top Weasley, Harry Potter managed to sell a few books and movies.

But in the first decade of the 21st century, the best known wizard in these parts was Brian Plasters.

True, some News-Sun sports fans were able to Beat the Wizard, fulfilling the name of the weekly contest to pick winners in area football and basketball games.

But after going 16-2 in his debut column, Plasters beat all comers often enough, he says in a spirit of opponent trash-talking, “to let everyone know I was the boss.”

As well-read as his News-Sun columns and stories were from 2002-2010, Plasters is as well-read these days by subscribers to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources publication “Wild Ohio.”

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He has been with the ODNR since leaving the News-Sun and finishing a master’s in environment and natural resources at Ohio State.

It’s a job he seemed to be migrating to most of his life.

Now 43, Plasters grew up in suburban Cincinnati, enjoying weekend hunting with his father, Bob, first for rabbits, later for deer. They enjoyed fishing trips in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana even more.

But from the start, Plasters said, there was something “beyond that” in his connections with nature – a depth of interest that at age 12 led him to tape four pieces of paper together and draw a detailed map of a childhood woods he so often combed through.

His baseball playing and an interest in writing brought him to Wittenberg University in the fall of 1999. But it was a “totally hard” class taught by biology professor Tim Lewis that taught him “you don’t need much of a space” to help nature re-establish a foothold where you live.

Some classes in journalism and a childhood dream of writing for Field and Stream led Plasters to strike out in journalism after graduation. His route was a virtual carbon copy of experience of a nearly directionless Witt grad of an earlier century: me.

Over the course of three or four years, he worked at two small newspapers. Echoing my own experience at another publication, Plasters said: “When I was at the North Virginia Daily, all I could think about was getting out of the North Virginia Daily.”

But, like me, in his third newspaper job – back in the town where he went to college – he found a firmer footing.

The Wizard was his headliner gig – one in which he was happily and totally immersed in time spent with coaches, teachers and sports. But Plasters also was hired to write outdoors stories – stories that both put him in contact with ODNR people in the area and kept his childhood interests alive.

“I think that was a good thing about the News-Sun,” he said. “I wanted to get better (and) they let me grow in the job. I feel like it was a rush (almost) every day.”

Just as I had 30 years earlier, Plasters married a Witt grad in 2006, and when he and Sarah had their first daughter, Kate, in 2008. That had him looking for a future with greater stability at a time when newspapers were in flux.

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Sarah’s teaching job helped buy time for him to finish his degree. And in 2012, a month before August graduation, the ODNR had an opening that, for Plasters, offered a chance to make a strategic pivot: “I could use my writing and editing and communications knowledge to get into the wildlife world.”

Hired as information director, he was named publications director two years later, and now is as deeply immersed in the world of wildlife as he once was in wizardry.

Wild Ohio’s audience is made up of two basic constituencies: People like himself who annually put Ohio near the top in sales of hunting and fishing licenses, and “a ton of people who have never hunted or fished” but nonetheless love nature.

At the ODNR “we talk about (the goals of ) sustainable use and appreciation by all,” he said – ideas at the center of growing a coalition for wildlife and nature.

“We try to get as many people as we can to experience the stuff,” Plasters said, “because we know that once they get involved, there’s something they’re going to enjoy – there’s something for everybody.”

To get those things in front of Ohioans, Plasters relies on teams of communications people in five ODNR regions and the agency’s other employees.

“Those are the people I really depend on to help me get the right articles in the magazine and make sure we’re going down the right road.” And he’s always trying to tap his sources' most natural resources, whether at the keyboard, in front of a microphone or staring down a television camera.

“Once you find out what people are good at, then it becomes easy. It’s finding out what they’re good at that’s the challenge.”

One of Plasters' most rewarding moments at the ODNR came in April, after a citizen census discovered 707 bald eagle nests in Ohio, a huge increase from the 281 found in 2012.

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Contributing to stories, contacting media and appearing on radio shows while people checked their county next totals, he felt he had become “a version of that outdoor writer” he had dreamed of being in childhood.

And it looks likely that he’ll continue living that dream.

Now living in Canal Winchester with Sarah, who is now a school administrator in Lancaster, and their three daughters, he still has a sense of the “much wider and deeper world” of nature.

“There’s a thousand other species you can hunt, and they’re just as important as the deer and the squirrels and the rabbits and the squirrels. And there’s a lot more fish species and all kinds of aquatic species. There’s amphibians, and there’s reptiles.”

There are monarchs that travel from Ohio to Mexico, salamanders that thrive in the Buckeye State, and creatures that hibernate underwater by absorbing oxygen through their skin.

And there are the individual things that sometimes come across his desk.

Like the woodpecker’s tongue.

As Plasters wrote:

"In these birds, the tongue begins in muscle tissue that is coiled around one of the woodpecker’s eyes (or begins in the lower mandible). The tongue wraps to the back of the bird’s head and then exits through the bill. Proportionally large compared to the bird’s size, the tongue extends up to 5 inches past the tip of the bill in some species (for reference, a red-bellied woodpecker is about 9¼ inches long) …

“That’s not all …. The end of the bird’s tongue is barbed for harpooning insects. The barbs face back toward the woodpecker to keep prey from dislodging, similar to a fish hook. Further, the tongue is sticky so prey cannot wiggle free. An insect has no chance to escape once it is speared.”

No matter how old one gets, the woodpecker tongue is among those many things in the natural world that remain the stuff of childhood wonder.

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