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Nature no longer free
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After decades of free access to many of the county's popular swimming holes, hiking trails, and kayak and canoe put-in points, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has changed all that.

Even churches have to pay user fees to conduct baptisms.

Our department looked at ways to increase revenue because of budget cuts, said Scott Frazier, wildlife biologist with the Georgia DNR.

User fees went into effect in January last year, but many new user fee signs were recently posted and now cover virtually every recreational public access point in Dawson County.

How many times are we going to be charged? asked Dawson County Commissioner Jimmy Hamby (District 3), who grew up in the county and as a teen spent summers at Devils Elbow, War Hill Park and several others at no cost.

Hamby said in a bad economy, people who used to go away on vacation are staying closer to home.

This land is supposed to belong to the people, he said. Everybody already pays taxes for these public lands. Where does it stop? Theyre (the state) not tightening their belts enough, they just keep loosening ours.

According to Frazier, the fees level the recreational-use playing field, and user fees have been in place for hunting and fishing for more than a decade.

Hunters and fishermen have had to pay to use the land for years, and they only use it part of the year, Frazier said. They were saying that hikers, and bikers and kayakers use it for nothing all the time.

Our main expenses have to do with maintaining roads and gates, he said. In Dawson County, at the Edge of the World area, for example, weve built a new parking lot, improved the road and built a boardwalk.

And, at least two churches in Dawson County use public land and rivers for baptism.

I would assume there arent any provisions written about that, Frazier said. I dont know if anyone would get a ticket for getting baptized.

Sweetwater Baptist Church, founded in 1870, has been holding baptisms at the Etowah River for more than a century.

"The church pays the user fees," said Pastor Darrin Sams.

Pleasant Union Baptist Church recently posted pictures of its July 28 baptisms held at the Amicalola Creek on Steve Tate Highway also a user fee area.

Georgia Outdoor Recreational Passes (GORP) must be purchased in advance by users age 16 to 64.

And the state isnt making it easy to do that.

Instead of the old-fashioned metal boxes where users would insert a few dollars in an envelope, passes are only available online, by phone, or at stores that sell hunting ad fishing licenses.

So, if youre looking to pick blackberries, hike, launch your canoe, or get baptized, itll cost you $3.50 for a three-day pass or $19 for an annual pass to access any of Georgias 32 wildlife management areas, including the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management areas.

Two DNR employees and one county game warden patrol the Dawson County Wildlife Management areas, Frazier said.

If you get stopped, theyre going to ask to see your pass, Frazier said.

Dawson County Commissioner Gary Pichon (District 1) said it isnt right.

These places have been open to the public for years and years, he said. Theyre seen as a place for people to go play that dont belong to a country club. It makes me mad.

Pichon suggested lock boxes be put in all locations.

A person ought to be able to stick a few dollars in there and shouldnt have to go home, get online, access the Internet, and have a credit card just to play in the woods.

Its a kinky, cumbersome system thats driving people away. Pretty soon, well be like the English where only the great lords and ladies have access to public lands, he said.

Sunday afternoon in Dawson County was warm and sunny a perfect day for outdoor recreation.

Cherokee County resident Joshua Nicholson, his friend Shanda and her daughter, Aslyn, were playing in the Amicalola Creek off Steve Tate Road in northwestern Dawson County.

"I don't like these fees, and I don't agree with them," Nicholson said. "These parks are put here for everybody, and we shouldn't have to pay for it again since we already did with taxes."

David and Marilyn Palmer, Cobb County residents, brought their dog Lucy to one of the county's most popular spots, Edge of the World.

"We already paid for this," David Palmer said. "They're getting into our pockets again. I understand charging people who are fishing or hunting, but we're just here to walk the dog and enjoy nature. This year, we did purchase the pass online."

Marilyn Palmer explained what happened the first time they visited the park.

"A game warden told us we had to have a pass," she said. "We didn't have one so we had to leave and find a store that sold them, but they were closed on Sunday, so we ended up just leaving. It was pretty frustrating."

To purchase a pass online, According to instructions on the website, users must have a credit card, a printer capable of printing graphics, a version of Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.2 or higher, and pop-up blockers must be turned off. Additionally, users will need a driver's license or social security number to complete the transaction.