I am late getting to this subject with summer whizzing along, but not so much so that we can’t still squeeze it in the state of Georgia’s brag book, along with Vidalia onions, St. Simons sunsets, rainbow trout and Ray Charles Robinson. I am talking about our state parks.
This year marks Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites’ 85th. It all started in 1931 with two properties — Indian Springs in Flovilla and Vogel in Blairsville — which are two of the oldest state parks in the country.
Today, Georgia claims some 60 sites on 85,000 acres from Amicalola Falls in Dawsonville (my favorite) to Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island in Darien and from Black Rock Mountain Park, Georgia’s highest state park, in Rabun County, to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge near Waycross.
Our parks — and they are our parks — host more than 10 million visitors each year and are an economic driver in the state, with an economic impact of more than $600 million a year in direct tourism expenditures and the creation of more than 6,000 jobs.
Becky Kelley, the director of Georgia’s State Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division of the Department of Natural Resources, said, "After surviving the economic downturn and budget cuts, our state parks and historic sites are now positioned to thrive. Instead of closing parks, our occupancy rates are up. We have added amenities, made improvements and have begun initiatives that will benefit the citizens of the state for years to come."
Many offer overnight accommodations from cabins to tents to RV camping, as well as paddle boats, kayaks, bicycles, golf courses and more than 500 miles of hiking trails. Add to that ancient Indian mounds, battlefields, presidential homes and a gold museum, and you have to ask yourself, why take a vacation out of Georgia?
Kelley, who has headed the organization since 2002, agreed and said, "We are encouraging visitors to stay longer and take advantage of Georgia’s great backyard."
She added, "It’s especially important for parents to share these outdoor experiences with their children — and grandparents with grandkids. And, after a fun day outside, why not spend the night in the campground, cabins and cottages?"
A recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment says 84 percent of children supposedly enjoy spending time playing outside. I hope that is true and can only assume someone confiscated the youngsters’ video/cellphone/Nintendo gizmos and suggested that they play fox and hounds like their grandparents did. The last I heard, the kids were looking to see if there is an app for that.
Of course, weather is always a concern for our state parks, with predictions that we may go through another period of drought.
Kelley said, "We certainly stay abreast of the weather and expect that water levels will be sufficient for visitors to enjoy boat rentals and good fishing. We work with Georgia Forestry and follow their guidelines as well as with the Environmental Protection Division of DNR. Campfires, recreational and cooking fires are allowed in our state parks. However, we urge caution when conditions are dry. We remind visitors that fireworks and sparklers are not allowed on our properties under any conditions."
As for the future, Kelley said, "We are reinvesting in our facilities and cultural resources as well as in recreation. In addition, campground and cottage upgrades as well as group shelters for family and organization gatherings and historic site restorations will be ongoing."
And volunteers are always welcome. Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for the parks, said, "Yes, we use many volunteers at our parks, including campground hosts, golf course hosts and folks who build or maintain trails, as well as help out with events. Numerous parks have Friends groups, which are part of the statewide Friends of Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites. Anyone who is interested in volunteering can either contact the parks directly or check GeorgiaStateParks.org."
The width, breadth and depth of our state parks and historic sites is just one more example of how lucky we are to live in Georgia, a state with so much going for it. And I haven’t even mentioned the oldest state-chartered university in the nation, located in Athens, the Classic City of the South. Our cup runneth over.