A move to take certified rangers out of state parks has drawn concern from local officials.
"My concern is if you don't have any law enforcement presence at Amicalola Falls all the time, then what's that going to do to me, and our law enforcement agency here," said Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle.
His comments followed an announcement last week by state officials regarding several changes that will take effect July 1 at Georgia state parks.
According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson, complete management of the state parks has been turned over to Florida-based Coral Hospitality, a private firm that has managed the lodge, cottages and convention center at Amicalola Falls State Park in western Dawson County since December.
With the move toward privatization, Bryson said the changes are a step to streamline operations at the state's parks by consolidating services, which is intended to save money, improve customer relations and in the long term achieve self-sufficiency.
Carlisle said shifting the burden to counties to save money at the state level is troublesome.
"If they take all their law enforcement officers away up there and no one up there has any law enforcement authority, it's going to leave it up to us," he said. "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. So it's going to be an expense back to the county.
"Saving taxpayer money at the state level means it's going to fall back on the counties. They're leaving it to the counties to take care of it."
Under the new structure, Bryson said DNR law enforcement officers would be available to respond to calls at the state parks and management areas in their region, which consists of a five-county zone.
"Right now we have law enforcement officers scattered over five sections, and there's little to no coordination as to where they are deployed," he said. "We have clusters of law enforcement officers across the state and some places we have none. We think there is a tremendous amount of efficiency this will bring."
Carlisle said he called Bryson last week when he first heard talk of the changes.
"He assured me that this won't be a problem for us or our department, but I think it could impact us a great deal," he said. "My concern is there is so much visitor traffic at the park just about any time during the year, especially in the summer months and the fall season, there's a lot of people up there. Someone is going to have to make sure they are being safe."
Dawson County Emergency Services Director Billy Thurmond said the assistance of certified rangers at Amicalola Falls has been vital in numerous emergency calls at the park, where the closest manned fire station is on Hubbard Road, outside Big Canoe, nearly 10 miles away.
"On every occasion they get to the patient or the injured person a good bit of time before we actually get there, and a lot of times, they've already brought them back down to a good place for us to meet them, either half way up the falls area or all the way back down at the reflection pond," he said. "It's absolutely helpful to have them up there. They are trained in first aid, CPR, rope rescue trained."
Thurmond said his office has not been in contact with anyone from Coral Hospitality, though he anticipates conversations to take place leading up to July 1.
"At this point, I haven't talked to anyone in the new management division to hear what they're going to be doing, what their skill level is going to be, how they're going to handle anything," he said. "We'll be going up there trying to find out about this new company and what they're capabilities are, but we haven't done that yet. We're going to try to make some kind of contact with them and find out what they are going to be able to do, compared to what the certified park rangers can do now."
The new strategy to streamline DNR's law enforcement, according to Bryson, is based on a similar model used in 2010 that consolidated the wildlife resources division.
"That transition has been very successful and we believe we'll see similar success with the new changes," he said.
Last week's action also resulted in the workforce reduction of 141 positions at the state parks, though Bryson said a large percentage could be offered positions with Coral Hospitality, which hired 98 percent of the employees affected in last year's management transition at the lodges.
"Most will have the opportunity to work with Coral Hospitality or work in other positions with us," Bryson said. "A number of our employees will help fill other vacancies and we have a brand new park opening."