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Protect the Okefenokee Swamp – Again.

This column was first published on August 25, 2019, in the Savannah Morning News (see bottom of article for link to original).


Since retiring, I’ve spent time seeing our great country and writing a travel blog.

I’ve driven the entire length of America’s best back-country road, the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. I’ve criss-crossed Amish country in bucolic Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and I’ve trudged the star-speckled streets of Hollywood and the back alleys of Nashville.

I’m still getting started. But my modest journeys have taught me that today’s generation has a responsibility to protect our nation’s marvelous natural, cultural and historic assets for future generations.  As a new grandfather, I’m keenly aware of how necessary it is not to foul things up for those who follow us.

That’s why Georgians, as well as people who want to preserve the world’s great natural treasures for future generations to appreciate, should rise up against the latest plan to open a strip mine on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, putting the future of this unique public treasure that straddles the Georgia-Florida border in the Southeastern U.S. at great risk. Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, a private company in Birmingham, Ala., filed an application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting permission to mine on 12,000 acres just outside of the Okefenokee in search of zirconium and titanium. The public can submit comments to the Corps until September 12.

The Okefenokee Swamp is home to a broad range of wildlife, including wading birds, songbirds and black bears. But the most abundant and visible resident here is the American alligator. This is where Walt Kelly's comic strip, "Pogo," got its start. (Stock photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

The application details how the company wants to gouge 50-foot-deep pits with huge draglines and grab valuable minerals from the bowl-like Trail Ridge on the swamp’s eastern edge.

The Okefenokee is comprised of about 440,000 acres in Ware, Charlton, and Clinch Counties, Georgia, and Baker County, Florida. The National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1936

and it is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems (the larger Everglades was altered by manmade canals).  About 600,000 people visit the swamp annually. The Okefenokee is made up of peat beds, island prairies, open lakes, creek channels, and cypress forests.  Wading birds and black bears all make their homes here, but the most abundant and visible residents are American alligators.

The 400,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp straddles the Georgia-Florida border and is one of the world's largest intact freshwater ecosystems. It consists of peat beds, island prairies, open lakes, creek channels and cypress forests. (Stock photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the strip-mining could pose “substantial risks,” and some damage may be irreversible. Twin Pines officials, however, have promised that its operation would be “environmentally friendly.”

But there’s no guarantee against accidents, which happen all too frequently in strip mining. In addition to its natural value, the swamp is an economic asset. As a travel blogger, I’ve seen the economic importance of tourism. One of the most under-reported stories about the Okefenokee is the swamp’s major contribution to the economy. A 2017 “Banking on Nature” study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed that the Okefenokee generated 753 jobs and $64.7 million in annual economic output.  Twin Pines has said it hopes to create about 200 mining jobs –- a poor trade-off. Georgia should not prostitute itself.

If this whole mess sounds like a repeat of a horrible nightmare, it should. Another corporate intruder, The DuPont Company proposed the same reckless plan in 1997. After three years of public outcry, DuPont abandoned its mineral rights and donated most of the 16,000 acres it owned in that area to The Conservation Fund for protection. 

How a powerful American company was stopped from getting its way is the stuff of local legend. At the center were two brave and gritty Savannah women, Judy Jennings and Becky Shortland. They and the Sierra Club and Georgia Conservancy enlisted help from Gov. Zell Miller, Sen. Max Cleland and Clinton-era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

In a story that made the rounds back then, Babbitt visited the Okefenokee in April 1997. The refuge manager took the secretary up in a chopper to show him the mine site, and when Babbitt saw its proximity to the refuge he said, “This can’t happen. There’s a line right here in the sand and DuPont can’t cross it.’" Babbitt denounced the mine proposal, calling for DuPont to withdraw from the site. So did Miller, one of Georgia’s most forward-thinking governors.

Within days, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources passed a resolution against the mine. Soon it was history. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the current 19-member DNR board, chaired by Jeff “Bodine” Sinyard, who runs a pest control company in Albany, have been quiet about the latest threat to one of Georgia’s crown jewels. The next DNR board meeting is August 27. But opposition continues, including an online petition with nearly 2,500 signatures.

Okefenokee is a Choctaw Indian word meaning "trembling earth," after the swamp’s unstable peat beds. It trembles now because of its uncertain future. I remember my first canoe trip through this amazing place. I remember beady eyed alligators watching me like the tasty trespasser I was. I hope my new grandson is able to have that same experience. Save the Okefenokee Swamp for today and tomorrow.

Tommy Barton is the retired editorial page editor at the Savannah Morning News.

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