GAINESVILLE — Changes at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have been gradual but well-received, according to DNR Deputy Commissioner Hommer Blyson.
Earlier this year, the DNR created a new law enforcement division, separating it from the Wildlife Resources division. The change took effect July 1.
“Basically because it was a phase-in period, really not a lot has occurred because we haven’t had any vacant positions in law enforcement,” Blyson said. “As planned, it’s been very, very slow.”
More than 2,800 people spoke publicly on the issue when it was discussed in the spring, with opinions coming from wildlife advocates and park supporters to prosecutors and former state officials.
Proponents said the move was long overdue and would help solidify law enforcement efforts agencywide.
Opponents said they feared parks, many of which get quite crowded, will end up with less of a law enforcement presence.
“It has put the divisions working much closer together than it has in the past,” Bryson said. “The biggest change is a better-coordinated law enforcement effort on our state properties.
“It’s been able to make operations more efficient, without a doubt.”
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.
The state has about 200 conservation rangers with full-time law enforcement duties.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said deputies have been responding to more calls as a result of the reorganization.
“We’ve been responding to a few more calls in the Amicalola Falls area,” he said. “DNR, when they had the presence up there, they handled a lot of those. They used to have a ranger there every day, and they pretty much worked that area for emergency calls and everything. Now that’s left up to the law enforcement, to the counties to respond.”
He said with a limited number of deputies, response times have been “a few minutes” longer.
“That’s if you’re full, you have about five working at a time,” he said.
As the starting point of the Appalachian Trial, the park gets a lot of visitors, and the calls vary.
“It’s going to be some calls like a lost hiker, accidents where people fall and get hurt, vehicles illegally parked,” Carlisle said.
White County Sheriff Neal Walden said he hadn’t seen any changes yet.
“Thus far, I have not seen any change, any additional work come our way,” he said. “If it continues the way it’s going, it will be all right.”
Unicoi State Park is located in White near Helen, and busier times are yet to come, Walden said.
“In the summers is when you have the biggest influx. That starts at about April, through Octoberfest in Helen,” he said.
“I do know so far everything has worked fine. Law enforcement people have been pretty prevalent since the change.”
Blyson said the agency hasn’t gotten much comment from the public.
“I never expected the public to see much of a difference,” he said.
He added that many of the concerns and fears about the change were driven by “misinformation.”
“We have met and discussed this with local authorities and senators, and I think we have pretty much addressed their concerns and fears,” Blyson said. “… Any time there’s change, some people expect the worst."