Law enforcement changes coming to Georgia state parks

Worried that fewer law enforcement officers will be at work in Georgia’s state parks, conservation groups asked the Department of Natural Resources Tuesday to hold off on plans to reorganize how it polices its properties.

State officials are adamant, however, that visitors’ usage and enjoyment of the state park system will not change. The plans would streamline five separate enforcement units within DNR into one division. Visitors, they said, will see no reduction in the 200 full-time law enforcement officers serving the state parks, though some employees no longer will do part-time enforcement work.

The consolidation will be phased in through 2018. DNR’s governing board is expected to vote in June on new rules related to the changes.

DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson said the plans continue work begun in 2010 to make the department’s law enforcement operations “more effective and more efficient.”

What has conservationists most upset are plans to phase out part-time policing work done by on-site park staff, including park managers, who are known as deputy conservation rangers. There are more than 80 such deputies working in the state park system, many of whom juggle several duties.

Under the plan, after 2018 those employees no longer would carry law enforcement certification from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

Law enforcement responsibilities would fall on full-time officers, including those who traditionally have worked within DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division emphasizing enforcement of hunting, fishing and boating laws.

Bryson said officers would be more evenly spread out across specified areas to respond to any park problems.

But Todd Holbrook, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said the added duties could stretch the new division thin and decrease law enforcement visibility within the state park system. Holbrook, who retired last year as DNR deputy commissioner, also worried the phase-out of part-time law enforcement will cost more in the long run.

Also, grant money could be endangered. Federal authorities with the Department of the Interior have advised Bryson to be careful how state hunting and fishing revenues are spent regarding certain law enforcement activities. Any use of that revenue, which brings in about $20.5 million annually, other than to benefit hunters and anglers could put Georgia at risk of losing additional grant money it receives through the federal wildlife and sport-fish restoration program.

But “park enforcement has got to happen if you’re going to have a family-friendly environment,” Holbrook said.

DNR, in advance of the board’s expected June vote, will seek public comment on its plans over the next 30 days and hold a public hearing.

However, the Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Quality Deer Management Association and Georgia Council of Trout Unlimited want the department to step back and spend more time refining its plan — with a plea to especially seek input from hunters, anglers and state park visitors.