State parks to eliminate law enforcement rangers

hduncan@macon.comMay 10, 2013 

To cope with escalating budget cuts, Georgia State Parks plans to eliminate rangers’ law enforcement duties from all state parks over the next five years.

That includes High Falls State Park in Monroe County, which is among the five most visited parks in the state.

Homer Bryson, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s roughly 200 game wardens, who already assist with law enforcement at the parks, likely will take on more of that responsibility. They are assigned in work sections of five to six counties, he said.

Bryson said the roughly 75 park rangers with law enforcement certification already spend about 90 percent of their time on other types of park operations. Their jobs will remain. They will simply no longer have law enforcement responsibilities, he said.

“You’re keeping the same number of eyes on our parks, so if DNR employees do see issues that require law enforcement, they can call the local (game management) ranger or local law enforcement agency,” Bryson said. Some issues, such as search and rescue, don’t require a certified law enforcement officer to manage, he said.

“Our commitment to our parks and resources (is) remaining the same,” he said.

But Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick, who was unaware of the planned change, said it concerns him because his department will likely have to respond to more calls at High Falls State Park, where the most common problems relate to fights, drunkenness and drownings.

“But it does not surprise me that the state is doing that, because it has stopped providing most services and pushed them to local governments,” he said. “Pretty soon the only service they’re going to provide is writing tickets.”

Bittick added that game wardens provide some of the most valuable services sheriffs receive, but they are limited because there are so few of them.

“It’s amazing to me in these times that people would be cutting back on law enforcement, of all services,” he said.

Bryson said eliminating law enforcement rangers in parks will save the state money because the parks division can pay for fewer certifications, guns and related equipment at a time when those costs are climbing.

At the same time, rangers can focus more time on marketing and programs that increase revenue by bringing more visitors to the parks, Bryson said. Georgia has cut the budget of the parks division by 40 percent over the last five years, said DNR communications director Lauren Curry.

“This is not a reduction in force,” Bryson. “It’s just an internal reorganization so park people can concentrate purely on park operations.”

It will also help with liability, Bryson said, because the DNR had five different law enforcement groups with different policies and procedures. Hiring and patrolling have not been coordinated among the different law enforcement groups.

“By moving everyone into one full-time law enforcement group, you can address some of those issues,” Bryson said.

Each park employee with law enforcement certification will be able to choose how long to continue those duties, within the five-year window, Bryson said.

He said the department will monitor the transition and might redistribute game wardens if needed. He said DNR may eventually decide that instead of 75 rangers with part-time law enforcement duties, it would make sense to add back 25 to 30 full-time law enforcement rangers, for example. That would still provide a savings on certification and equipment.

Bryson said the change at state parks that is likely to have the biggest impact on the bottom line is outsourcing management of some major golf courses and parks. The state is also closing its statewide golf headquarters office and not renewing its online golf registration system for a savings of about $300,000, he said.

The North Georgia Mountain Authority, through a contract with Coral Hospitality, will manage the entire park at not only Amicalola and Unicoi state parks in north Georgia, but also the parks and golf courses at Little Ocmulgee in Middle Georgia and George T. Bagby in east Georgia.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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