A former state park on a scenic portion of the Flint River will now be managed by Upson County under a 50-year agreement signed in December. The land remains owned by the state.
Sprewell Bluff recreation area had become a hot potato in recent years as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was hit with deep budget cuts.
As a state park, it had been considered for closure because of low visitation, although it was the cheapest in Georgia to run. Three years ago, its one staff member was eliminated, management was handed off to the states Wildlife Resources Division and it was downgraded to a recreation area.
The state continued to collect a parking fee there that went to the state parks division, which was no longer maintaining the park. Park hours fluctuated. Last year, Sprewell Bluff officially became a wildlife management area managed by DNR.
Now, the new agreement with Upson County will provide some predictability and stability for the portion of Sprewell Bluff used most by the public -- more than 1,000 acres including a boat ramp, playground and three miles of trails.
We felt like we had to take it over, said Steve Hudson, an Upson County commissioner whose district includes the park. If not, the state would have closed it, in our opinion. ... Its very popular. During the summer on a weekend, you go down there and it is packed.
The DNR will maintain the right to manage for wildlife and hunting (in recent years, mostly bow-hunting) there, said Mark Whitney, DNR game management chief.
Sprewell Bluff Wildlife Management Area also includes a larger tract across the river in Talbot County that contains old-growth longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat. The DNR will continue habitat restoration work there, as well as controlled burns on the Upson County side of the river, Whitney said.
The park, located along a scenic portion of the Flint River, includes miles of trails on rocky bluffs and a popular public swimming area that was once a local party spot.
In the past year, visitors had to buy a $3.50 Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass before coming or by phone, although cell phone reception is rare there. When Upson County takes over Tuesday, that pass will no longer be required, but the agreement with the state allows the county to charge a reasonable parking fee. Hudson said the county probably will charge about $3 because it has no money budgeted for maintaining the park.
The agreement also requires Upson County to keep Sprewell Bluff open at least from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week, including Saturdays and Sundays from March through November. The area most recently has been open seven days a week, and Hudson said the county plans to leave it open 24 hours a day.
He said a DNR employee continues to live in a trailer at Sprewell Bluff for now. After it is vacated, Hudson has hopes that an Upson County sheriffs deputy might live there rent-free. The county does not intend to staff the park, but it will still mow grass and pick up trash there using prisoners, as it has for several years, Hudson said.
In addition, Hudson is talking with various county departments about maintaining the trails, installing permanent bathrooms and digging a well.
The countys most recent special purpose local option sales tax included $100,000 to build a deck, bathrooms and small visitors center at an overlook on county-owned land at the parks entrance, Hudson said. He said he hopes that work will be done by July 4.
In the future, Hudson hopes the county can eventually add a bath house, pads for tent and recreational vehicle camping, and yurts.
Weve got grandiose plans and no money, said Hudson with a laugh. I am going to be begging everyone I can think of.
But he added, I dont see any reason why we couldnt have primitive camping fairly soon.
Hudson said he is approaching major Georgia employers for funding and has been offered support from the Flint Riverkeeper advocacy group and management of the nearby Camp Thunder Boy Scout camp.
Whitney said any new development Upson County undertakes at the park must be consistent with the parks master plan, but all the ideas he has heard would fit.
Whitney said the county has asked for permission to change the name of the recreation area to Sprewell Bluff Upson County Park. The state has not made a decision, he said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.