Byline: TERESA STEPZINSKI
BRUNSWICK -- As residents and tourists return to Georgia's woods and waters this spring, the number of law enforcement officers responsible for keeping them safe is dwindling.
Some Georgia Department of Natural Resources conservation rangers are casualties of annual state budget cuts while veteran rangers are lured away to federal agencies and the private sector for better pay and benefits.
Fewer rangers means potential delays in searches for boaters and rescues of hikers or hunters who are injured, lost or stranded, said Lt. Col. Jeff Weaver, assistant chief of DNR's law enforcement section.
"Rangers originally had one county ... but now they have two, three or even as many as four counties they are assigned to at one time. That increases the response time, and when someone calls us, they pretty much need us right then," Weaver said.
Ranger safety also is at greater risk because other rangers may have to travel greater distances to help in an emergency, he said.
Basically, ranger staffing is back down to early 1980s levels, Weaver said, while the state's population has more than doubled.
"We've been in this pattern for about four years," Weaver said.
Fewer rangers and longer response times give poachers, polluters and other lawbreakers who stalk the woods and waterways a better chance of getting away, he said.
"If a ranger's covering three or four counties, it might be the next day before he can get there to a landowner with a complaint," Weaver said.
Organized in 1911, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was the first state law enforcement agency in Georgia. The rangers' jurisdiction covers the land and water.
Rangers are certified peace officers who investigate violations of wildlife laws, as well as hunting and boating incidents. They also are deputized to enforce federal fish and game laws. The rangers enforce the laws, rules and regulations on game and non-game animals, threatened and endangered plants, boating safety, litter and waste control and other natural resource issues.
An increasing number of experienced rangers are quitting to take more lucrative jobs. At least 15 have left during the past three years, with most going to federal agencies, Weaver said.
"We hire good folks and we have good training, so they come in and cherry-pick our folks, taking them away from us," he said.
Many have gone from the department to the U.S. Secret Service, Border Patrol, FBI or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where they can get twice the pay and better insurance benefits, he said.
That leaves Georgia's rangers spread thin statewide. On the coast, 28 rangers, including one captain, seven sergeants and two rookies training at the state academy, are assigned to nine counties sandwiched between the Florida and South Carolina borders.
Their territory extends at least 3 miles offshore into the Atlantic Ocean and includes the state's barrier islands, wetlands, salt marshes and woods on the mainland.
"All the waterways and the woods are our responsibility to cover ... If I had 10 extra people, I could use them," said Capt. Stephen Adams of the coastal region based in Brunswick.
Coastal rangers work on the water much of the time, and most of their duties require two officers in the boat, Adams said.
Rangers in South Georgia, including the coastal region, handle a variety of cases as detailed in these recent department field reports.
-- March 9 -- Ranger 1st Class Joe Hilton, serving as an aerial observer for a state patrol helicopter pilot in Coffee County, directed law enforcement officers on the ground to a suspected robber who fled into woods after leading police on a 30-minute car chase. …