From assembling picnic tables to clearing trails, area residents can partake in a variety of improvement projects during Save My State Parks Day. Organized by the Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, the volunteer activities are being presented during a statewide celebration of National Public Lands Day in which visitors are admitted free of charge to all state parks and historic sites.
"Save My State Parks Day coincides conveniently enough with National Public Lands Day," said Damon Kirkpatrick, president of the about 1,200-member Friends of Red Top and manager of chapter services for Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites. "National Public Lands Day is set aside at the federal level to get everybody out to their federal lands to enjoy them. It's a day of service nationwide.
"We are participating at the Georgia level, Friends of Georgia State Parks, with the Save My State Parks initiative. Our real purpose is to educate, to get people involved, show them some of the volunteer opportunities that are available, maybe get their feet wet with the volunteering. A lot of people think special skills are required, you have to know the right people to come out and help. And we really just want to show people that anybody can do it and it's a lot of fun."
On Sept. 25, Red Top patrons are invited to meet at the Park Office -- 50 Lodge Road in Cartersville -- to tackle numerous projects from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Designed for all ages and skill levels, they include cleaning up trails and assembling picnic tables at the Park Office parking lot. The volunteer work will be followed by hayrides at 2 p.m. and a live animal program from 5 to 6 p.m.
At Etowah Indian Mounds, the needs range from weeding the American Indian garden and painting picnic tables to laying mulch on walking trails from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"There are things that we need to do that sometimes we don't have quite enough hands to do," said Steve McCarty, interpretive park ranger for the Etowah Indian Mounds, a 54-acre site, where several thousand American Indians lived from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1550. "We do these things sometimes on a large scale and it requires many people.
"Again, it will improve the appearance of the site and also help make it much better in terms of the usage. The walking path will be a little more comfortable. The tables will be a little bit more desirable to use if they're cleaner and a little neater."
Since the Save My State Parks Day initiative was launched last year, the Cartersville venues have been trying to sustain their programming despite budget cutbacks following the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' restructuring of its 48 state parks and 15 historic sites. Implemented July 1, 2009, the plan was in response to a 24 percent forecasted loss of revenue and about a 39 percent decrease in state appropriations. Along with looking into the privatization of lodges and golf courses, other reorganization steps included cutting 12 percent of the system's labor force and utilizing furloughs one day each month, diminishing the services at five state parks and reducing operations at 12 historic sites.
Along with downsizing personnel, the Etowah Indian Mounds' operating hours initially were reduced from six days a week to three days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. With the decrease in hours and manpower, the opportunity for guided tours for school groups was diminished, but the site still offered the service to students on Thursday with the addition of Resource Manager Steve Hadley. In the past, the Etowah Indian Mounds annually averaged at least 24,000 visitors, 35 percent of whom were students.
Now, due to the contributions of The Coosawattee Foundation Inc. and a seniors' organization, three additional part-time workers are assisting the Etowah Indian Mounds' staff, enabling the venue to reopen on Wednesdays. This latest development allows guided tours to be conducted for school groups Wednesday through Friday.
During the past year, Red Top also did not go unscathed. In addition to reducing personnel, its lodge and Mountain Cove Restaurant closed June 30. The building now is being used as the Park Office, with restroom facilities available to the public.
"A year ago at Save My State Parks Day we had a lot of uncertainty around what would happen -- would sites close, things like that," Kirkpatrick said. "This year we're certainly not in any better position financially but we do know a little bit more. There's been a huge effort to make sure that every park remains open even if some of the services and abilities are cut back.
"We're also starting to show our age. We've been under pretty darn severe budget cuts now for almost two years and the stress that that's putting on the sites as they delay maintenance and delay repairs and delay capital projects is really starting to show. So it's a great opportunity to get everybody out there to try to spruce things up a little bit and just kind of plead our case a little bit, so to speak."
Currently, the Georgia DNR is considering the elimination of its "free Wednesdays" offering at all state parks and historic sites. If implemented February 2011, the change would save the DNR $400,000 in revenue each year. The Library Loan Program still would remain, enabling patrons to check out passes at public libraries that grant free access to the venues.
"Obviously we've got to get through the downturn. That's the big thing right now," Kirkpatrick said. "The [Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites] division is working very hard to make sure that every site stays open and accessible to the public. But during that time as Friends and volunteers, we have to come together and help our parks through this. At the same time though the division is looking very hard at building their own future by working toward self-sustainability, trying to lessen the burden on the state budget and produce more of their revenue to make themselves more self-sustaining.
"Red Top's going to be a big part of that by making sure we have plenty of guests, making sure there is plenty of things for them to do," he said, adding Red Top is the second most visited park in the state. "We hope that soon we'll see some improvements in the campground area. There are a couple of parks that are slated to get some of those improvements already from bond funds that are supposed to go on sale this fall. We hope that Red Top will be added to that list soon. So even though we are in a budget crunch, there are some investments that are really geared toward making the parks more sustainable so the next time we have a budget crunch it doesn't hurt so badly."
To find out more details about the Save My State Parks campaign, visit www.SaveMyStateParks.org or call Kirkpatrick at 770-975-7533, ext. 9.