Terry Miller is responsible for all 1,050 acres of High Falls State Park, including the 360 acre lake, plus the 60 acres of the Dames Ferry campground at Lake Juliette. He is required to live at the park and is on call 24/7, even when he isn’t actively on duty.
Miller said he came to a dream job when he took the position of park manager at High Falls early this year and that he plans to stay here through the rest of his career. Upon arrival he had no idea of the challenges he would face as Georgia’s state parks became one of the few travel destinations to remain open as the state shut down for COVID-19.
Miller said that High Falls State Park, already one of the most visited state parks in Georgia and an easy day’s drive from both Atlanta and Macon, stayed so busy that it was necessary to close the entrance at times to maintain social distancing. It was especially packed over the Memorial Day and July 4th weekends. Miller said some people came who had never been to a state park before.
Park staff couldn’t count exactly how many people were in the park but judged that when all of the park’s 157 parking spaces were filled, estimating 3-4 people per car plus some walk-in’s and campers, it was time to wait for some to leave before allowing more in. Usually the closure lasted a couple of hours.
“It was my first week here when COVID hit,” said Miller. “It’s been busy, busy. It was the only thing left open, and everyone flocked here.”
Miller was born in Macon, raised in Albany, and then spent 27 years in the Macon area before joining the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and being assigned to other parts of the state. His first career was in journalism, writing primarily for magazines. He managed digital media and websites for Channel 41 in Macon before deciding to make a career change. While in Macon, Miller said he often hunted and camped in Monroe County and considered himself coming back home when he got the assignment to High Falls.
Miller first worked for DNR marketing the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad at Georgia Veterans State Park near Cordele. The railroad carries passengers to Plains and Americas and back.Then he was assigned to Gordonia-Altamaha State Park near Reidsville, which is one of the state’s parks with a golf course.
“It’s a unique life,” he said.
Miller said the job of the park ranger has changed since 2009 when DNR faced a budget crisis and had to find new ways to generate revenue to keep the parks open. Before then the park ranger was focused on maintenance of his or her park; now the person in charge of a state park must be a business manager, finding resources for his staff to get the job done.
Miller said he feels he has a stable staff and can focus on getting them the resources to maintain and improve the park. High Falls has five full time staff and about 20 part time employees including those at the Dames Ferry campground. Since Miller came to High Falls he has been able to fill all of the positions. He said the full time positions were filled with employees from other state parks.
There are also volunteer campground hosts who live at the park without charge for six months in exchange for maintenance and host duties. Many retirees enjoy rotating to various state parks.
“They are vital to operations,” said Miller. “It’s a life style. You have to be willing to work and enjoy living in an RV.”
He said the Dames Ferry campground, which is still owned by Georgia Power but managed by the state park system since early 2019 after being closed for a couple of years, has undergone renovations and is still expanding.
“It’s one of the prettiest parks in the area,” said Miller. “It’s packed every weekend.”
This past summer High Falls State Park campgrounds have been packed throughout the week as well as on weekends, with new campers arriving every time a group leaves. Camp sites can be reserved up to 13 months in advance, and reservations are for specific sites. There are 28 campsites at Dames Ferry and about 120 at High Falls.
The packed campsites were in spite of many amenities being closed in 2020. The High Falls pool, mini-golf and boat and kayak rentals are closed. Playgrounds were closed for a while but have re-opened. Boat rentals were discontinued because of the complicated requirements for sanitizing life jackets and boats and not enough staff time to do the cleaning. All programing has been suspended and the park naturalist assigned to other duties; people couldn’t both social distance and gather around the naturalist closely enough to hear and participate.
Miller said some of the big programs at High Falls Park, like Halloween trick-or-treating, probably won’t happen this year unless move COVID restrictions are relaxed. The Friends of High Falls State Park group, which provides many of the volunteers for these programs, has remained largely inactive to protect its members during the pandemic.
“We want to err on the side of caution,” said Miller.
He has had no staffers test positive for COVID. The Visitors Center re-opened about a month ago with regular daytime hours Mondays-Thursdays. He reminds people that state parks generate most of their own revenue, rather than being taxpayer supported. That revenue comes from the $5 park passes, annual park passes, camping fees and Visitor Center gift shop sales.
Miller’s goal for High Falls Park this winter is to clear back some of the vegetation that has overgrown its boundaries, which will make it easier to travel the trails and will open up views of the river and the falls.
Miller said he plans to stay at High Falls State Park through the rest of his career. He said he has a number of family members and friends in the area. His daughter, who will graduate from college this year, completed high school at First Presbyterian Day School in Macon. Going a bit north, he is on the PR & Marketing staff at Atlanta Motor Speedway and works on NASCAR race weekends in the media center, which includes giving VIP tours around the garage, pit road and victory lane.
The staff at High Falls includes assistant park manager Amy Waite, maintenance supervisor Chase Grizzard and resource manager Taylor Geonis.