It is a theological fact that God really likes Georgia. That is why he put mountains in North Georgia and the Golden Isles smack up against the Atlantic Ocean and added a bunch of lakes and parks and historical sites in between. Otherwise, we could have been Iran. Or Detroit.
I stopped by last week to visit the man who is entrusted with these assets, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Mark Williams, to get an update. We didn’t talk religion, but I suspect his views on what God did for Georgia pretty much line up with mine.
A former state legislator from Jesup, Williams says, “I have my dream job.” He has also the qualifications, having served on the committees overseeing our state’s natural resources in the General Assembly before assuming his current post. He has to love his job to leave the friendly confines of Wayne County and spend so much time away from his family. I asked him why he does it. The commissioner says, “I love this state and I want to leave it better than I found it.” Now, that will preach.
Not only is Georgia blessed with splendid natural resources, those resources are big business. Ecotourism -- a term new to me -- includes boating, kayaking, bird watching, camping, hunting, fishing and the like and brings in nearly $7 billion to the state annually. Fishing is almost $2 billion of that; hunting, $1 billion.
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Our 48 state parks and 15 historic sites generate about 10 million visitors a year and a half-billion dollars. Salt water fisheries bring another half-billion to the state’s economy.
As for protecting those resources, I asked Williams about a piece of legislation, HB 42, that has had a number of people along the coast, including me, concerned. The legislation would allow certain construction inside the current boundaries established by Shore Protection and Coastal Marshlands Protection Acts with a Letter of Permission (LOP) to be issued by the DNR.
Williams says the bill has been amended to allow temporary activities within the jurisdiction area -- such as shooting movies -- and for no more than six months. After that time, the area is to be returned to as good or better condition than when the permit was issued. Activities within the physical parameters of an existing structure can be built with only a Letter of Permission.
If the Legislature and the DNR plans to amend the Coastal Marshland Protection and Shore Protection acts next session, as I am told they may, they are going to need to do a better job of telling us what they plan to do and why. The coastline belongs to all of us.
Another bill, SB 136, which has sailed through the Legislature, concerns boating safety and is long overdue. The measure will require more stringent boater education and brings Boating Under the Influence (BUI) and Hunting Under the Influence (HUI) more in line with Driving Under the Influence and with more severe penalties. Too many lives have been lost because of ignorant yahoos who should never have been operating a boat in the first place.
I asked the commissioner what he would like to say to you about Georgia’s natural beauty. He says, “I would ask them to please help us with the stewardship of our resources.” He is right as rain. Preserving our abundant resources and passing them along for future generations to enjoy is as much our responsibility as it is the 1,600 employees of DNR. The state belongs to us all. Enjoy what we have. Keep it clean. Respect the environment.
As for me, Williams wanted to be sure I knew of the success of the “Go Fish Center” in Perry, which has been one of my favorite targets since it was birthed -- or was it “hatched?” -- by former Gov. George E. “Sonny” Perdue. He says the facility which is operated by his department has had more than 40,000 visitors from around the country since it opened in late 2010 and more than 6,000 children and adults have participated in education programs there. I said I would tell you that. (He plans to let Gov. Perdue know that I did. My job can be very difficult, at times.)
My talk with Williams was a good one and convinced me more than ever how blessed we are to live in Georgia with such glorious natural resources. Could you imagine having this conversation in Iran? Or Detroit? Thank you, Lord.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.