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State weighs trimming wildlife lands, new fees
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ATLANTA — Forced to trim spending, Georgia's state government may lease 3 percent less land for its public hunting and fishing grounds and charge new fees on those who visit them, the state's newly appointed natural resources chief said this week.

In a worst-case scenario, Georgia would stop leasing roughly 25,000 acres of land in its statewide network of wildlife management areas, which now supply nearly 1 million acres of public land to the state's hunters and fishermen, said Mark Williams, commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue recommended the Jesup lawmaker to lead the 2,500-member department late last year. He's responsible for managing the state's wildlife, protecting coastal marshlands and preserving historically significant sites.

"We're very optimistic we will not have to close any wildlife management areas. The acreage on some wildlife management areas may change," said Williams, who fishes and hunts turkey and deer, including the heads of several prize kills mounted on his office wall. "You can save some costs but still keep the area open."

After absorbing big budget cuts during a deep recession, Williams' agency has been instructed to trim more spending. On Tuesday, Williams said larger-than-expected tax collections from ammunition and hunting license sales should help close the budget gap in the current fiscal year.

His department will consider scaling back its wildlife management areas to help balance the books in the coming fiscal year starting in July. Williams said he expects lease negotiations with private landowners will start in late March, after Georgia lawmakers finalize a new state budget.

No decisions have been made on which wildlife management areas could lose land. Williams said one criteria will be considering how heavily wildlife lands are used. The new commissioner said he wants to make sure land is available in regions where outdoor enthusiasts have few public hunting areas.

"We wouldn't want to leave our citizens, our hunters without a place to hunt," Williams said.

In another bid to raise funds, Williams' department has proposed charging more people fees to use the wildlife management areas. Right now, only hunters and fishermen pay.

His department's proposal would force bird watchers, hikers, canoe paddlers and others to pay $3.50 for a three-day pass and $19 for an annual pass, the same fee that hunters and fishermen pay for yearly access. He expects the board of the Department of Natural Resources will vote on the proposal by March.

Williams said the proposal is fair because wildlife management areas require staff to enforce safety and game rules, keep the gates open, maintain roads and light controlled burns to prevent larger wild fires. While hikers, rock climbers, bird watchers and others benefit from those services, they do not pay for them.

"I think a good argument could be made that they're still using the services and the resources that the state's keeping up there for them," Williams said.

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