Watson Mill State Park is dropping the “state park” from its name.
The 1,110-acre park, with the iconic covered bridge, will soon be an “Outdoor Recreation Area.” As of Oct. 1, the Watson Mill office will close, with three employees losing their jobs. Likewise, the park’s three “pioneer” camps will close.
The downgrade also includes the closure of Watson Mill’s 32 campsites for half of the year. Those sites will only be open during spring and summer months — from March 15 to Sept. 15.
Horse trails, the playground and picnic area will remain open year round.
The park will collect fees based on the “honor system,” with citizens still expected to pay a $5 fee for day-long parking privileges, along with fees for camping at the park.
The Department of Natural Resources anticipates saving $90,000 annually on salaries, utilities and maintenance costs, according to DNR spokesperson Kim Hatcher, who added that the DNR’s state parks division has seen its budget drop by roughly 40 percent over the past four years.
The DNR spokesperson said state park officials recognize that “safety and security” are big concerns related to the park’s downgrade, but she said the cost-cutting measures won’t eliminate patrols of the grounds.
“The park will still be supervised by a DNR employee and local law enforcement,” said Hatcher, who noted that the DNR employee will continue to live at the park.
Chip Chandler, president of the Friends Group for Watson Mill State Park, said the downgrade is a “big loss for Madison County.” He noted that Watson Mill is a low-cost form of entertainment for the entire family.
“We see a lot of local people during the recession pay that parking fee then spend the day out there, picnics and playing on the rocks, people coming out using the hiking trails and horse trails,” he said.
Chandler said maintaining the things the public enjoys using requires work, which will now largely fall on volunteers. Chandler also expressed concern that the park could lose some appeal since there won’t be as much supervision.
“We have volunteers, but we need a baseline of staff too,” he said.
Hatcher said Watson Mill wasn’t alone in the latest round of budget cuts. She noted that Roosevelt’s Little Whitehouse Historic Site in Warm Springs was also hit, with seven employees laid off at the former FDR getaway.
Watson Mill State Park, which sits on the Madison-Oglethorpe County line, includes the longest covered bridge in the state, spanning 229 feet across the South Fork River. Built in 1885 by Washington (W.W.) King, son of freed slave and famous covered-bridge builder, Horace King, the bridge is supported by a town lattice truss system held firmly together with wooden pins, according to the park’s website. At one time, Georgia had more than 200 covered bridges; today, less than 20 remain.