Georgia park projects axed as tax on outdoor gear comes up short

The Chattahoochee Nature Center at Roswell stands to lose $500,000 in state funding that leverages much more as a tax on outdoor products to pay for park projects statewide is falling millions short of estimates. lauradyoung/Getty Images

Funding set aside for conservation projects across the state evaporated unexpectedly after state budget writers dramatically reduced their revenue projection constitutionally set aside for the program.

An oversight board approved a tentative list of projects earlier this month that divvied up the nearly $33.4 million thought to be available next year for the grants, signing off on funding for trails, land buys, forest restoration initiatives and other conservation projects.

On Tuesday, the board was called back in to whittle the proposed list down after the revenue projection was reduced to $20 million – a difference of more than $13 million. Instead of skimming funding across all projects, the board chopped seven from the ranked list of projects to the dismay of those now left off the list.

The unlucky projects include the city of St. Marys, which was set to receive nearly $1 million for a trail project, and a $2.7 million campground renovation project at Vogel State Park in Blairsville. Cobb County, Sandy Springs and Savannah have also found themselves knocked off the list.

“To jump from $34 million to $20 million did kind of catch me off guard due to the amount,” said Braye Boardman, who serves on the board as Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s appointee. “Do we have some verification or something that those are the actually monies received and being allocated?”

Mark Williams, who heads the state Department of Natural Resources, attributed the drop to shifting revenue projections. The department’s board must still approve the list, as do state lawmakers.

It’s no secret that state revenues have fallen flat, but that has been largely chalked up to sluggish income tax revenue. Sales tax revenue is up slightly, but the funding for the conservation grants comes from a portion of the tax paid at the register for camping gear, canoes and other outdoor supplies.

Voters overwhelmingly backed a constitutional amendment in 2018 that created the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Fund, which was pitched to them as a way to protect the state’s waterways, wildlife and parks. About 83% of voters approved it.

This year’s project list represents the first time the funding will begin to trickle back down to the local level. Nearly 60 applications were submitted for consideration.

The South Fork Conservancy in Atlanta was one of those who are still on track to receive funding. The group, which is focused on restoring a portion of Peachtree Creek, plans to put its nearly $1 million from the state toward nature trails and green space in what the conservancy’s executive director, Kimberly Estep, called a “park desert.”

But she and others said they were confused by the drastically diminished pot of money available.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see the money suddenly be gone,” she said, referring to funding for other projects.

One of the projects that didn’t make the cut would help fund the replacement of an aging wooden boardwalk along the Chattahoochee River in Fulton County. As a result, Jim Stokes with the Chattahoochee Nature Center said losing the $500,000 in state funds jeopardizes a large matching grant the nonprofit had lined up for the project.

Jim Stokes with the Chattahoochee Nature Center said losing $500,000 in state funds jeopardizes a large matching grant the nonprofit had lined up for a boardwalk project. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“If we don’t get this $500,000, or a major part of it, we’re not going to make that grant,” Stokes said. “So what we’re talking about is not just losing $500,000. We’re talking about losing $2.25 million.”

As of now, eight local parks and trail projects are set to share about $12 million, with the city of Johns Creek receiving $3 million to help develop 200-acre Cauley Creek Park.

The Trust for Public Land is also set to receive $2.3 million to create campsites and make other enhancements along the Chattahoochee River to accommodate multi-day paddle trips. And Forsyth County would be awarded $2.3 million to create trails and passive park space at Eagles Beak Park.

The top-ranked project is set to receive $550,000 for a project along the North Oconee River in Athens-Clarke County. There’s also $1 million tucked away for the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail extension, and nearly $900,000 for Jefferson County’s “Where the Moss Meets the River” project.

About $6.1 million would go toward buying land on the coast that it is considered important to the gopher tortoise and setting it aside as a wildlife management area. And another $1.9 million is planned to go toward forestry projects, including $1.7 million for an ecosystem restoration project that would close an old manmade called Noyes Cut in the Satilla River Basin.