From coldwater streams in the mountains to alligator watching further down this way, the state Department of Natural Resources is anywhere and everywhere. Monday, DNR Commissioner Mark Williams spoke on the vast responsibilities of the department with the Golden Isles Republican Women at their regular meeting on St. Simons Island.
Williams, who was assisting the response to the M/V Golden Ray capsizing earlier that morning, said the department operates with around 1,700 staff, and that goes up to around 2,200 with the addition of the Environmental Protection Division, which operates semi-autonomously within the department.
“We have a $120 million budget — $82 million state, $42 million federal and $41 million we raise ourself,” Williams said. “That’s through our state parks and stuff. … Your parks do a great job. They actually operate at about 80 percent self-sustainable. I don’t know a lot of states that can boast that, and (the staff) still keep them looking beautiful.”
With those parks, the state manages more than 1 million acres of public land that attracts around 9 million visitors, who make around $1 billion in economic impact. Speaking of which, Williams also noted the economic impact of the state’s roughly 500,000 hunters — $1.6 billion — and 1 million anglers, which is around $2 billion.
Combined, that’s about $5.3 million worth of economic activity per day.
DNR also manages the state’s nine fish hatcheries.
“One of the biggest and newest ones is real close to us — we just built a new one in Richmond Hill,” Williams said.
According to DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, Henry Ford donated the area in 1936 that’s now home to the Richmond Hill hatchery, and that hatchery’s produced more than 800 million striped and hybrid bass since the state program began in 1968. The recent renovations increased capacity by 25 percent, and the hatchery is the sole supplier of striped bass, hybrid striped bass and white bass fry in the state.
Williams pointed out that 95 percent of the wildlife in the state falls under the non-game category, and it took until recently for DNR to receive money in the state budget specifically for non-game wildlife management.
“Gov. (Nathan) Deal is very important — he was a great governor for a lot of reasons, but one of the things he did, he was the first governor to recognize non-game in the budget,” Williams said. “Now, he put it in there, but we had great folks like Rep. (Don) Hogan and Rep. (Jeff) Jones that kept it in there. We’ve always had to chop our own wood — stealing a line from our (current) governor.
“Just like high school band, we had to raise our own money, and the way we did that was through the hummingbird license plates, the eagle license plates, and a big event down here at Sea Island once a year called Weekend for Wildlife.”
Reps. Hogan and Jones were both in attendance at the event.
Williams also said that if Hurricane Dorian would’ve had a worse impact locally, DNR crews were ready to respond.
“Just know you had 120 rangers staged as individual debris and first-responder units, because our rangers come with a boat, four-wheeler, chainsaw, tow rope,” Williams said. “They were staged right outside the area — we had 16 eight-man debris teams with big equipment staged right outside the area. And, our park system housed 4,500 evacuees, which included 63 horses, and I don’t know how many pets we got, because (people) just bring them with them. We waive all pet fees to make everything pet-friendly during an evacuation.”