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Budget cuts might slice state parks in Northeast Georgia
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Beth Brown of the Department of Natural Resources talks about the proposal to close some state parks.

Georgia’s state parks system ranks among the best in the country. Its 48 parks and 15 historic sites attract 11 million visitors each year, with high levels of customer satisfaction.

But that may not be enough to save some of Georgia’s parks from the chopping block. Like all state agencies, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has been ordered to cut at least 6 percent from its budget, and possibly as much as 10 percent.

"The DNR has six divisions, but two of them, Wildlife Resources and State Parks, are involved in land management and are very personnel-heavy," said DNR spokeswoman Beth Brown. "The only way to achieve the cuts we need is to close facilities."

Each division was asked to make a list of proposed cuts if the budget were reduced at three different levels: 6, 8 and 10 percent. Those lists have been sent to the DNR board, which will consider the proposals Wednesday before passing them along to the Office of Planning and Budget.

"The bottom line is we have to come up with some big dollars (to carve out of the budget)," Brown said. "This is the highest level of cuts I’ve ever seen our agency have to consider."

She estimates that up to six state parks and up to seven historic sites could be affected. There has been much speculation about which parks will be targeted, but Brown said no decisions have been made.

Officials will look at how much it costs to operate each park and at the geographic distribution of the sites.

"We don’t want to do it (close parks) in just one area of the state, which could limit public access," Brown said.

Northeast Georgia is fortunate to have some of the state’s most popular parks, including Amicalola Falls, Vogel, Unicoi and Tallulah Gorge. But Brown said these parks aren’t necessarily immune to the budget ax.

"A high-use park is less likely to be cut," she said. "But at this point, nothing is off the table. Our goal is to be able to do this with the least amount of impact possible, but it’s going to be a challenge no matter how you slice it up."

Brown said the DNR is also looking at alternatives to closing parks, such as keeping them open only on weekends. There also has been talk of outsourcing parts of the parks, such as golf courses and lodges, to concessionaires.

Two options not yet under consideration: raising user fees and laying off park employees.

"The parks are short-staffed as it is," Brown said. "They have about a 20 percent vacancy rate right now."

Andy Fleming, director of the nonprofit Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, said the parks already are bare-bones operations, and there’s nothing left to trim.

"The parks system has had its budget cut every year since 2002," he said. "There’s a cumulative effect. They’ve been deferring maintenance year after year."

The Friends organization does what it can to take up the slack. With 37 chapters across the state, the group has put in about 32,000 volunteer hours so far this year. Members help maintain trails, put on interpretive programs, and perform other duties that park employees don’t have time for.

Now, they’ve got a new task: saving the parks.

"We’re making sure that our chapters communicate with their state legislators and the governor, letting them know how important the parks are to their communities," Fleming said.

He thinks closing parks would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

"(Georgia’s system) is one of the top three in the nation, and the state has put a lot of effort into achieving that status," he said.

It could be argued that state parks are a nice amenity, but expendable compared to other agencies that deal with issues such as health and safety.

But Fleming thinks Georgia should not underestimate how much its parks contribute to residents’ well-being.

"Especially in challenging economic times, parks become even more important to people’s quality of life, because families can’t afford to take expensive vacations. These parks are all they have," he said.

Fleming said the Friends group is opposed to privatizing any portion of the parks. Several years ago, the DNR turned over its state park lodges to a concessionaire, only to have to take control of the lodges again because of poor management.

"That was an operational and financial disaster that cost a lot to fix," Fleming said.

He said the group’s members will ask legislators to keep the parks just as they are, and hope they can find a way to make the parks a priority in the state budget.

"We like the system as it currently is," Fleming said.

So do most people. But you can’t always get what you want. Brown said when the economy goes bad, everyone has to bite the bullet.

"(Closing parks) is a sign of the times, unfortunately," she said. "It’s a tough decision, but everyone is having to look at tough decisions right now."

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