17 Reasons We Must Protect The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

The iconic Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge needs our help. It was established in 1937 as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Yet, this designation hasn’t stopped corporations from trying to extract its natural resources.

Since 2019, Twin Pines Minerals, LLC has sought to operate a heavy mineral mine at the doorstep of the beloved Okefenokee Swamp. This isn’t the first time a corporation has tried to mine here. It’s likely that it won’t be the last. Here are 17 reasons we must protect the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

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  1. At 407,000 acres, Okefenokee is the largest National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi River. 88% of the refuge is congressionally-designated wilderness. It’s the biggest wild place in the Southeast.
  2. Okefenokee is the largest intact freshwater ecosystem in North America. Freshwater is a limited resource. It makes up only 3% of all water on Earth. Freshwater ecosystems include bogs, lakes, rivers, springs, streams, and wetlands.
  3. Okefenokee is the greatest intact blackwater wetland in North America. Blackwater gets its name from the tannins that decaying vegetation releases. The tannic acid makes the water appear dark, like black tea. Wetlands are vital green infrastructure. A third of America’s threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. Okefenokee is a designated Wetland of International Importance.
  4. Okefenokee has been a refuge to more than wildlife and wilderness. It was the Indigenous homeland of the Muscogee (Creek) people. The Deptford and Swift Creek Cultures, the Weeden Island Culture, Cord-Marked Culture, Timucuan people, and the Seminoles inhabited the land over time. Although there are no inhabitants in the present day, Okefenokee is a sacred homeland to many. The Indigenous peoples gave the Okefenokee Swamp its name. European colonizers interpreted Okefenokee to mean “land of trembling earth”. The peat bed islands that cover much of the swamp feel spongy and unstable. Others interpret Okefenokee to mean “bubbling water”. This is because decaying organic matter on the swamp floor releases methane and carbon dioxide bubbles.
  5. Okefenokee’s trails are part of Black history. Southeast Georgia researchers recently discovered some hidden history. Okefenokee’s 120 miles of water trails exist thanks to Black Americans. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps sent a unit of 200 Black young people to what is known today as Okefenokee. They dug many of the water trails that we still use today. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the unit called Company 1433. The park has obtained $500k in federal funding to support further research to learn more.
  6. Okefenokee is a spiritual refuge. Pastor Antwon Nixon of Mt. Carmel’s Missionary Baptist Church holds service at Okefenokee quarterly. Pastor Antwon was born just 10 miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. As a child, he played and fished in the swamp. He connects faith and nature through stewardship. He organizes to protect the swamp because he knows it’s vital to the health of the people. Learn more about Pastor Antwon and his work to protect Okefenokee on this episode of PBS America Outdoors | Suwanee: Wild River.  The segment begins at the 2:40 mark.
  7. Okefenokee is rich in biodiversity. The refuge is a prime habitat for iconic American wildlife. Some threatened and endangered species make their home in the refuge. American alligators, bald eagles, black bears, bobcats, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, wood storks, indigo snakes, and more. Okefenokee also hosts more than 800 plant species. You can find rare carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants and sundews there.
  8. Okefenokee is one of Georgia’s largest and most important carbon sinks. It stores the equivalent of 145 million tons of carbon dioxide. 65% of the carbon is stored in Okefenokee’s peatlands. Peatlands are sensitive to changes in the water balance. If the water levels drop, the peat can dry out. If the peatlands dry out, they may release disastrous amounts of carbon. It would also make Okefenokee more vulnerable to wildfires and drought.
  9. The eastern boundary of the Okefenokee Swamp is held in by an ice age relic. The Trail Ridge is a high ridge of sand formed nearly 250,000 years ago. The soil of the trail ridge has distinct layers of heavy minerals. This is what makes mining at Okefenokee appealing to extractive industries. This rim maintains the integrity of the water balance of the swamp. If the layers are displaced, the structural integrity of the Trail Ridge could fail. Disturbing the sediments may release toxins. Mining could emit chemicals that release radiation and heavy metals into the swamp. This could pollute nearby surface waters and rivers.
  10. Okefenokee is the headwaters of two major rivers. Both the Suwannee and the St. Marys rivers flow from the Okefenokee. The Suwannee River extends over 246 miles from South Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. The Suwannee is the largest unaltered river in the Southeast. That means there are no dams stopping its natural flow. The St. Marys River runs 126 miles from Okefenokee to the Atlantic Ocean. The St. Marys River forms the border between Georgia and Florida.
  11. Rainwater primarily feeds Okefenokee. Two rivers flow out of the swamp, but none flow in. That means Okefenokee is very sensitive to changes in climate and weather. It’s also susceptible to drought. Dry periods can cause water levels to drop and rivers to slow to a halt.  When this happens, the swamp edges and islands can become vulnerable to wildfire. Lack of roads makes fighting fires in the swamp extremely difficult. If mining impacts the swamp’s water levels, these conditions may become worse. okefenokee-swamp-kayakers
  12. 800,000 people visit the Okefenokee Swamp every year. Recreation in Okefenokee brings $90+ million dollars in annual revenue to the surrounding counties. In turn, this provides hundreds of jobs for local residents. Outdoor enthusiasts from across the world visit the refuge. Okefenokee offers visitors birding, camping, hiking, fishing, paddling, photography, wildlife, and tranquility.
  13. The National Park Service nominated the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for UNESCO World Heritage Site Status. If designated, Okefenokee will join sites like the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone. World Heritage designation and infrastructure improvements would increase visitation. This could draw another $60 million in annual revenue to the surrounding counties.
  14. Okefenokee is one of the few areas in America to experience natural darkness. Stephen C. Foster State Park inside the Okefenokee Swamp is a Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park. It’s the first dark sky park in the Southeast. This status is only for the darkest skies with minimal light pollution. Mining will create light pollution. Light pollution will degrade the Okefenokee visitor experience. It will also impact local wildlife.
  15. The Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail is part of the National Water Trails System. This system is a network of public water trails. They came about to protect and restore America’s rivers and waterways.
  16. Okefenokee protection has bipartisan support. In 2022, Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) declared February 8th as Okefenokee Day. In the proclamation, he recognizes Okefenokee as “one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders.” US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland sent a letter to Gov. Kemp in Dec. of 2022. She expressed “serious concerns regarding proposed mining activities…” that could impact the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. She went on to say mining “poses an unacceptable risk.” Senator Ossof (D-GA) has asked officials to “reject strip mining near the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.” Sen. Ossof and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) called on Georgia EPD to ensure Twin Pines is “able to prove that operations will not harm the refuge.”
  17. Okefenokee is an inspiration. Walt Kelly produced the popular comic strip Pogo set in the Okefenokee Swamp. The comic featured an opossum named Pogo and his swamp-dwelling friends. Pogo explored politics, environmentalism, and human flaws through humor. Pogo was published in 450 newspapers and had about 37 million readers. Kelly produced the Pogo strip from 1948 until his death in 1973. It was one of the most controversial and censored comics of its time.

Twin Pines Minerals is one step closer to mining the Trail Ridge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD) is accepting public comments through April 9th at 4:30 PM ET.

Submit your personalized comment to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from mining. 

Take Action

Your participation in the process is vital! We must protect the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge!

9 questions we should all be asking the GA EPD

  • What mitigation plan is in place if the hydrology (water balance) of the swamp is disturbed?
  • What will happen if the groundwater usage impacts local drinking water?
  • Which heavy metals and pollutants will be allowed to be discharged in the air and water?
  • What health impacts should local residents be aware of?
  • What pollution monitoring will be in place?
  • What pollution controls will be in place?
  • What hours will there be light pollution?
  • What hours will there be noise pollution?
  • What mitigation strategy will be in place if endangered or threatened species’ populations in the area begin to decline?

Act Now: Protect the Okefenokee from Mining

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Dogwood is a proud member of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance.

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