Ga. officials prune back parks amid round of cuts

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ATLANTA (AP) _ Georgia parks officials voted Wednesday to close down state parks and historic sites this year and next, scrap new positions and outsource state-run lodges and golf courses to brace for a stinging round of budget cuts.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources did not say which ones could be closed, but said as many as six parks and seven historic sites could be shut down. The decision must be approved by the state's budget office before it takes effect.

The department and other state agencies were ordered to propose cuts of at least 6 percent to help close a budget gap of at least $1.6 billion, but the park cuts could be among those most sharply felt by the public. An estimated 10 million people visit state parks each year.

"This is not something we take lightly," said Commissioner Noel Holcomb. "But at some point you've got to have enough employees at a facility to ensure public safety and public service."

If approved by the governor's Office of Planning and Budget, the decisions would apply for the rest of the current fiscal year and the next.

The DNR board's unanimous decision came amid criticism from conservationists who warned shuttering the popular public spaces is a shortsighted move as high gas prices make local parks an increasingly attractive vacation alternative.

"When making choices, families may decide to reduce the number of vacations taken, travel closer to home, or take advantage of local and state parks," said Glenn Dowling of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. "But let me assure you, they will be going hunting and fishing."

Some outdoors advocates urged the department instead to hike the $9 charge for fishing licenses and tinker with hunting fees, which range from $10 to $60 for state residents. A fee increase must first be approved by state legislators.

Much of the debate focused on the fate of a struggling state-run golf course and a proposed tourist lodge in Fargo, a town of 380 near the swamps of southeast Georgia.

The golf course is slated to be shut down and the lodge's construction delayed under the proposal, a move that irks Superior Pine Products Co., which donated the 316-acre plot to the state.

Company president Andy Stone warned the board Wednesday that closing the golf course could "seriously impact" its future donations to the state. And town residents flooded board members with phone calls and e-mail messages urging them to support the struggling project.

"We need to find some innovative ways to help that area," said former state Rep. Loyce Turner, one of several board members who spoke out in favor of the course. "It's a rural area and the folks down there need some assistance."

Holcomb said he would consider ways to keep the course open, but he sounded doubtful.

While all state-run golf courses lose money, he said, the Fargo course is losing money at an alarming clip: The state spends $100,000 a year on a course that generates only $20,000 in revenues.

"You are going to get a huge number of e-mails in a short time," he told the board. "Everyone in this room will get questions about a Fargo in their county."

Tom Mills, a parks advocate who brought his six-year-old daughter Claire to the meeting, is glad not to be on the deciding end.

He visited 30 state parks in 30 days this summer, but when asked to name his favorite, he merely shrugged.

"It would be a hard to even imagine one closing," said Mills, a member of the Friends of Georgia State Parks. "Each park is so unique. Every resource is so special. So, what do you close?"

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On the Net:

Georgia Department of Natural Resources, http://www.gadnr.org/


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