"We're having to discontinue the Free Wednesdays program to help meet the budget challenges that we're still experiencing," said Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites. "So when people come, they'll pay the $5 parks [parking] fee every day. But they do have some options to save some money. If you do visit often, I would suggest getting the annual pass or Friends membership.
"And if you have a valid Georgia library card from a public library in Georgia, you can rent out ... a packet. It has a ParkPass that's good for all Georgia state parks and it has a historic site pass, which is good for up to four people at all of the state historic sites like Etowah and Pickett's Mill. So you keep it just like a book. In general, it would be checked out for about two weeks and then you return it just like a book. The good thing is that we were able to expand the Library Loan program this year to compensate for the Free Wednesdays going away. Every library is getting more of them than they had in the past. Most of them are getting four. So there are about 1,700 passes out there now all across Georgia, and there's around 350, maybe 400 branches."
Like other state agencies, the Georgia DNR's amendment to its fiscal year 2011 budget and the FY 2012 budget currently are being examined by the state legislature. After the budgets receive approval from the House and Senate, they will be reviewed and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal by the end of the legislative session. If the 7 percent projected cut is implemented for the FY 2012 budget, that would mean a 36 percent total reduction in the Georgia DNR budget since FY 2008. At this point, there are no plans to cut operating hours or personnel at any of Georgia's state parks and historic sites.
"The main thing that we want to communicate for your area -- there's been some miscommunication -- is that there are no plans to close Red Top [Mountain State] Park," said Lauren Curry, DNR's director of public and governmental affairs, referring to earlier published reports by regional media. "The lodge portion of that property had been part of an earlier cut. But the park, there's no plans for that [to close]. So we want to reassure folks."
Among the many interesting items to note in DNR Commissioner Mark Williams' budget proposals to the Appropriations Committees in January, is cost-saving measures need to be applied to particular Wildlife Management Areas. While land owned by the state and those referred to as secure long-term management agreements, such as areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service, will be safe, the agreements on annually-leased properties will need to be renegotiated to a lower price for the entire tracts to remain in the WMA system.
"These [annually-leased properties] are primarily paper company, timber company lands or others where we actually go to the landowner, typically corporate but not always, and enter into a lease on an annual basis, where we're essentially leasing the hunting rights to that property in the same method or manner that a private hunting club might approach a landowner and say, 'For X dollars per acre, we'd like to lease the hunting privileges,'" said DNR Deputy Commissioner Todd Holbrook.
In the state's WMA system, 21 of the 98 properties are annually leased, totaling 133,000 acres and costing the Georgia DNR about $1 million a year to operate. Among the properties that would be up for renegotiation is the Pine Log WMA. Encompassing 14,054 acres, it is located primarily in Bartow County, bordered by Stamp Creek Road, Georgia Highway 411 and East Valley Road. Open year-round, the site is popular with anglers, hunters, bird-watchers, horseback riders and hikers.
"We have actually proposed a reduction in the state funds," Holbrook said, referring to the proposed FY 2012 budget. "Without any kind of replacement funds coming in to handle the leases, that's a couple hundred thousand dollars ... that leaves us with the dilemma -- 'OK, what does that mean for the WMA system, for these annually-leased areas?' Well, the first obvious component part is we have recently purchased some lands -- substantial amount of acres -- that we used to lease, so obviously you don't have to lease them. So that's over half of that $200,000 right there. So we're now left $100,000 that we've got to find out of our system.
"Our first choice in doing that is to negotiate with the landowners, renegotiate the leases and hopefully talk them down in price that they charge us and ... if we get the price reduced enough, hopefully we will not have to eliminate any acres. If we can't, we will have to. Our first priority would be to make sure we maintain all of the existing WMAs that we have in the system. So there might be acres that we can trim off the side. That's the first priority, but we have got to see how the lease negotiations go, because if you have one landowner that's very cooperative and he reduces his lease prices and it's a great deal, [then] another landowner [could say], 'Oh, the times are tough and I've got to up in lease price.' We've got to weigh that by what is the best business decision for the Georgia sportsmen that are ultimately funding this program."