Georgia hunters and fishers pay tens of millions of dollars in licenses and fees to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and some now fear they won't receive the services paid for from that money.
That concern caused conservation groups, spearheaded by the Covington-based Georgia Wildlife Foundation to ask the DNR to hold a special meeting for the public to voice its concerns over a proposal to create a new law enforcement division.
The DNR currently has law enforcement officers spread out with Peace Officer Standards and Training certification within five different divisions, all with different hiring standards and different policies and procedures. The proposed law, to be phased in through 2018, would put the law enforcement officials under one department.
"We believe having one unit with one chain of command, we will be able to allocate the resources we have," said DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson. "If you put the badges on a map, you'll see we have clusters of law enforcement officers in some areas and none in other areas. There would be one centralized command structure that would coordinate that."
People opposed to the DNR's proposed law, however, said the change would reduce the number of enforcement officers.
"We'll begin with the very fact that any conservation ranger cannot be at two places at one time," said Georgia Wildlife Federation President and CEO Todd Holbrook. "As they collapse the unit of enforcement officers, that responsibility is going to shift over to the new enforcement division and that responsibility is 10 percent as big as their current one."
The DNR heard a presentation from its board members on the proposed changes at its May 21 meeting, and is set to vote on the possible new division at its June 25 meeting. However, due to public outcry there will be a special public hearing Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the DNR boardroom at 2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 1252 East, Atlanta.
The thought by some is that hunters and fishers, including those at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center and Hard Labor Creek State Park, will feel the effect of fewer people being able to help out.
Bryson, however, points to the fact that the DNR has been transitioning to the new reorganization throughout the last three years with 86 park rangers who are conservation rangers part time and 40 wildlife fisheries and technicians, a number that was at 80 three years ago.
Bryson added there won't be a reduction in personnel with the change, and the DNR will evaluate whether any personnel additions will be needed.
"All government has had to downsize the last couple of years, and this is one of the areas we looked to gain some efficiency effectiveness by having a full-time law enforcement group," Bryson said.
Former DNR Assistant Division Director and current Newton County resident Larry McSwain pointed out the organization's personnel reductions in recent comments to the DNR at its May 21 meeting, and looks at the possibility of more. In his written comments to the DNR, McSwain said. "Budget cuts combined with this reorganization will result in about 55 percent decrease in the number of certified law enforcement officers between 2002 and the conclusion of the proposed transition of all law enforcement functions to a new division."
"The result is there will be no enforcement individuals," McSwain said to The News. "Any problem with wildlife management areas, any fishing violations of any kind, any kind of disturbance in a campground will have to be handled by roving conservation officers generally assigned to one or more counties."