More than 2,800 people have spoken publicly on the polarizing issue, with voices ranging from wildlife advocates and park supporters to prosecutors and former state officials.
The decision of whether to create a new law enforcement division, separating it from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources division, now falls to the state’s 19-member Board of Natural Resources.
The issue — essentially a rule change — is set to go before the board at its meeting Tuesday at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, but it has been causing a stir for a while.
Proponents say the move is long overdue and will help solidify law enforcement efforts agencywide while opponents fear parks, many which get quite crowded, will end up with less law enforcement.
Under the reorganization, plans call for 86 park rangers, who have part-time law enforcement responsibilities, to decide by Aug. 1, 2018, whether they want to remain in parks or transfer to law enforcement, DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson said.
The state has about 200 conservation rangers with full-time law enforcement duties.
“Over the next five years, parks and law enforcement together will assess the trends in public safety needs within the parks system,” Bryson said.
And then, officials will “identify priority needs and allocate resources to meet the needs,” he said.
Bryson has said the move would serve basically to consolidate law enforcement currently spread among five DNR divisions and sections. It also would create a single set of standards for hiring, training, supervision, policies and procedures.
DNR began moving fisheries and wildlife technicians out of law enforcement about three years ago, so “this (proposal) is sort of the next step in that process,” Bryson said.
The move has the support of retired DNR commissioners Joe Tanner and Lonice Barrett, who sent a June 13 letter of endorsement to DNR Board Chairman Rob Leebern.
“This is a matter that has been debated and considered ... as far back as 15-20 years but now is considered to be feasible and appropriate, for several reasons,” they said.
Facing budget constraints, the State Parks and Historic Sites Division “has been mandated to become more self-supporting and generate more of its operating budget,” the men said.
“There are significant needs within the division to concentrate efforts on reaching out to ... users with new programs, activities, special events, interpretive efforts and increased emphasis on customer service.”
The former chiefs said the “DNR is wise to seek out more consistency in its efforts to provide law enforcement support on all DNR-managed properties.
“... A key part of this change will be the assignment of conservation rangers to provide services on state parks and historic sites and in certain cases, actually live on state parks or other DNR-managed properties where security can be further enhanced by their presence.”
David Waller, former 13-year Wildlife Resources director for the DNR, sternly opposes the change.
He said he doesn’t understand how the department can justify such a sharp drop in the number of employees with law enforcement powers.
“The numbers don’t add up as far as this being efficient,” Waller said.
Also, wildlife technicians know more about wildlife management areas “than anybody else on the face of the earth,” said Waller, who began his 32-year DNR career as a wildlife technician.
“So, if there’s a violation or anything going on ... that technician has no (law enforcement) authority. That technician has to call a (law enforcement) ranger from wherever that ranger might be in the county.”
“It’s illogical,” Waller added.
Kathy Brigman, president of Friends of Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawson County, said in a prepared statement that she believes POST-certified park rangers “are a great value to the taxpayer, as they serve multiple roles involving administration, interpretation, law enforcement, search and rescue, and maintenance.”
“Our state parks are some of the most concentrated and busiest tourist sites in Georgia, and park rangers respond to hundreds of incidents annually,” she said.
“A concern in removing the law enforcement authority of rangers will be the need to call for someone else to deal with public safety and medical issues.
Without a ranger on site, especially in the remote parks, response times are extended and additional work is put on local law enforcement.
“The burden will be transferred from the state to the local counties affected. I have an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for our game wardens, but Georgia is too much territory for them to effectively cover, and they cannot be everywhere at once.”
Among area law enforcement, Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle has expressed his concerns.
“What’s going to happen is I’m going to have to turn around, go back to the county commissioners and have to request more officers,” he has said. “So it’s going to be an expense back to the county.”
Neal Walden, sheriff of White County, where Unicoi State Park is located, said, “It’s certainly going to impact the (local law enforcement). It just seems like we’re getting more and more put back on us at the local level.”
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said he supports the DNR move.
He said his office and the DNR’s law enforcement “have always had an excellent relationship and I don’t see that these changes in the structure of the DNR would affect us in any way. We will continue to have a good relationship in keeping people safe on Lake Lanier.”
Sgt. Mike Burgamy, the DNR’s Lake Lanier supervisor, said the change won’t affect operations at the lake, one of Georgia’s busiest tourist destinations.
“You’re not going to see anything different than what you’re already seeing,” he said. “It’s not going to impact us, as far as us working, negatively whatsoever. We will continue to do business as we always have done.”
DNR Board members heard from officials on the matter, as well as some opposition from the audience, at its May 21 meeting.
A public hearing was held June 4 at the DNR’s offices in downtown Atlanta, with eight people in support and six opposed or saying they have concerns, according to the hearing minutes.
Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard was among those in support, saying she believed the creation of a Law Enforcement Division “would create a unified chain of command.”
The DNR also accepted public comments through written statements, emails and phone calls through Tuesday.
A tally by the agency showed 2,050 total public comments in support of the rule change and 752 in opposition or otherwise concerned.
Public comment also will be accepted at Tuesday’s meeting, Bryson said.
As for the meeting’s location, DNR board meetings “are held outside of Atlanta periodically to give the board an opportunity to see different projects and/or facilities,” he said.
The June board meeting is being held in Statesboro to give board members the opportunity to tour the new Shooting Sports Center at Georgia Southern University, an effort involving the DNR and Georgia Southern, Bryson said.
Board members who are from Hall County said they have been tracking public response to the proposed rule change.
“Every one (comment) that’s against it, there are 2 1/2 comments for,” said William Bagwell Jr., 9th District representative. “I think that says a lot about how people feel about it.”
He said he understands the concern about law enforcement presence in parks, but “my biggest feeling is the guys that are doing the law enforcement and ... the management are really dedicated people.
“And they’re just going to take care of it. The numbers may be reduced and that sort of thing, but the overall feeling is they’ve got it,” Bagwell said.
At-large board member Philip A. Wilheit Jr. said he believes “we’re moving in the right direction on this and everything seems to be going well. There’s been a small number of people against it, but we have had overwhelming support.”