cherokee conservation land
Cherokee County officials are hoping this will soon be the entrance to an outdoor recreation center. Critics question whether funding for such projects should come from local counties rather than a state program aimed at preserving wildlands. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A couple miles from downtown Ball Ground in north Georgia lies a piece of land bounded by the Etowah River and Long Swamp Creek.

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It’s the kind of spot where a nature lover could spend hours wandering the woods and rolling hills marveling at the wildlife and picturesque scenery.

That’s what Cherokee County officials think, which is why they bought nearly 24 acres between the river and the creek in 2019. The Long Swamp Creek Recreation Center’s only current amenity is a no trespassing sign, but county leaders have high hopes for the spot, including an educational garden, outdoor archery range, canoe launch and other amenities.

The plans come with a $1.2 million price tag, and Cherokee is asking the state to chip in half of that using funds from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship program, an act approved by voters in 2018 which directs a portion of the sales tax collected from sporting goods purchases toward the protection of wildlands and outdoor recreation areas.

This year’s crop of selected grantees adds up to just over $28 million in state funds headed to 15 projects around the state, but the list has some conservationists questioning whether voters are really getting what they overwhelmingly backed at the ballot box four years ago.

Here’s what the ballot measure approved by more than 80% of Georgia voters asked:

“Without increasing the current state sales tax rate, shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to conserve lands that protect drinking water sources and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; to protect and conserve forests, fish, wildlife habitats, and state and local parks; and to provide opportunities for our children and families to play and enjoy the outdoors, by dedicating, subject to full public disclosure, up to 80 percent of the existing sales tax collected by sporting goods stores to such purposes without increasing the current state sales tax rate?”

Georgia Wildlife Federation President Mike Worley said the projects are heavy on helping the state and local parks but too light on matters of land conservation and protecting water sources.

“I am very disappointed in the amount of public lands we’ve been able to secure through the last couple of cycles,” he said. “I am also disappointed in the amount of stewardship funding that is going to things like welcome centers at state parks. Those items have traditionally been funded via bonds, and GOSA was intended to provide new opportunities, not to supplant existing funding.”

Voters hoped GOSA would help keep the state’s wildlands wild, Worley said. But average funding on conservation and land acquisition has been lower since GOSA passed than it was in the years leading up to the act, he said, citing DNR board updates on land acquisition.

Of the 15 projects selected for preliminary approval for this year, eight are categorized under local parks and trails of regional significance, a category which makes up more than $15.6 million of the requested funds. These include $3 million each for rehabbing boat dock facilities in Bryan County, creating an inclusive outdoor recreation facility in LaGrange and creating a multipurpose trail with a boardwalk in Sandy Springs.

Critics like Worley say such projects should be funded by bonds, financial instruments local governments can issue to fund large projects. Investors buy the bonds, giving the local governments an influx of cash, and the city or county promises to pay the money back with interest in a set amount of time.

Five of this year’s GOSA projects are categorized under state stewardship, totaling $10.1 million. These include $4.2 million to expand the visitors center at Vogel State Park near Blairsville and $2.2 million for trail improvements at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County.

Two projects are labeled as land acquisition: the purchase of 882 acres bordering F. D. Roosevelt State Park near Warm Springs and the purchase of 1,348 acres in Marion County as an addition to the Chattahoochee Fall Line Wildlife Management Area. These projects total $2.3 million in state funds.

“That list seems to show that land acquisition is getting the short end of the stick,” said Mark Woodall, legislative chair for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “Land acquired made up those two projects, less than 10% of that $28.1 million, but they’re funding visitor centers. It looks like a bait and switch to us.”

The state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees funding, disputes that. According to their data, the two approved land acquisition projects were the only such applications submitted. The eight local park and trails projects were whittled down from 34 applications.

“Specific project types and funding allocation vary year to year based on a detailed approval process,” said DNR Director of Public and Governmental Affairs Donald Kirkland. “This process includes approval from the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program Board of Trustees, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board, and the appropriate House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees.”

“To date, program funding has assisted in the acquisition of more than 29,000 acres, and our grant staff is currently planning workshops to further educate the public on eligible project types,” he added.

Applicants also argue that some of their proposed parks will serve conservation and historic preservation purposes.

Cherokee County officials say the Long Swamp Creek Recreation Center is home to four unique fish species, including the Cherokee darter, which is classified as threatened, and the Etowah darter, which is endangered. Preserving the area as a park will ensure their habitat stays safe as the population in the surrounding area grows, officials say.

Other park leaders say their facilities have been swamped in recent years as the pandemic spurred more Georgians to spend their recreation time outdoors, and the GOSA money will help them meet the expanded need.

Those are laudable goals, Woodall said, but GOSA money is not the way to meet them.

“I don’t see any of those projects as being unnecessary or a bad idea,” he said. “But we are not getting what we bought. We’re getting a pig in a poke.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...