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Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist John Jensen climbs out of a cave near Pigeon Mountain, Ga. (AP File Photo/John Bazemore)

Georgia's budget has been cut so deeply, officials are looking in the woods for more revenue.

Tennessee officials say they may follow.

Mark Whitney with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said the state is considering charging user fees for hikers, cavers, paddlers, climbers, cyclists and birdwatchers who use wildlife management areas. For decades, hunters and anglers have paid for licenses to use the areas, but "nonconsumptive" users haven't had to pay.

"What we've done in the past is use hunter dollars to support everything else," said Whitney, chief of game management for the Wildlife Resources Division.

"We're at the point now where it's not sustainable. We can't do that."

As its budget has been reduced for consecutive years, Georgia DNR has reduced hours at state parks, kept vacant staff positions open and made other cuts.

Under the proposal, users would pay $3 for a three-day pass or $19 for an annual pass to visit places such as John's Mountain, Pigeon Mountain and the Coosawattee management areas. The passes would be available where hunting licenses are sold and would be enforced by DNR staff and game wardens.

Dalton resident Rick Moon, president of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association and a biker and paddler, said as long as the money stays with DNR, most outdoor enthusiasts don't have a problem paying to play.

"When the money is put right back into where it came from for those users, I think it's a good thing," he said. "When it just goes into the general fund, I'm not too happy about that."

As it stands, revenues from the proposed fees would stay within the agency to pay for staff, maintenance and improvements, Whitney said.

"Right now that's exactly what's going to happen," he said. "You don't ever know what's going to happen in the future because laws can be changed."

From across the state line, Tennessee officials will be watching.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Dan Hicks said officials will see how the system works in Georgia.

If it succeeds, TWRA might consider usage fees for hikers and climbers at places such as Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area and paddlers and birdwatchers at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.

He said the agency has been considering the idea for 10 years.

"We're definitely in the same boat as all of the other wildlife agencies in the Southeast," said Hicks. "We know that these people use this area and it's not fair for the hunting and fishing community to pay for that."

Whitney said the land management steering committee recommended the fees in October 2009. There would have to be a public hearing, likely in April, and the DNR board could vote on the proposal as early as May.

Georgia Canoe Association President Lamar Phillips said if it comes to a choice between small fees and losing sites to launch his canoe, he'll choose paying the fees.

"We certainly want to keep these areas open," he said, particularly mentioning the Dawson Forest area on the Etowah River. "This is one of the areas where they could cut costs and really limit our access. To me, it just seems fair, really, for the people using these to pay a percentage."

Terry Palmeri, of the Ellijay Mountain Bike Association, said mountain biking groups have told the DNR for years that they are willing to pay if it will help keep trails maintained and areas open.

"We've been asking to pay," she said.

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree or call 423-757-6324.