#MapMonday: The Okefenokee Swamp

Mae and our Southeast Program Representative, Christian, dive into the blackwater of the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge and discuss why this critical wildlife area is in danger of losing its pristine landscape and biodiversity.

Check out the story map: dfnd.us/okefenokeestorymap

Click to view video transcript Mae: Hey there everybody and welcome back to another Map Monday! Today we're sharing with you a brand new story map highlighting an area like no other place on earth: the Okefenokee swamp and National Wildlife Refuge.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge sits on the Florida-Georgia line at the headwaters of two major rivers, the St. Marys to the east and the Suwannee to the southwest. The swamp and these rivers provide healthy, untouched habitat that is critical for many threatened and endangered species, including the eastern indigo snake, red-cockaded woodpecker, and wood stork.

These species thrive in Okefenokee’s blackwater wetland, which is the largest in all of North America. Blackwater wetlands have a naturally low pH level and a dark tea coloration because of decaying vegetation that produces tannin, a naturally occurring organic compound that dissolves in water.

At the bottom of these wetlands lies peat, an organic material formed by decomposing plants in water. This peat can support a variety of life and also tells a story of global environmental changes tracing back 5,000 years or more. The health and vitality of this blackwater wetland and its neighboring rivers are now under threat by proposed mining operations in this region.

Okefenokee was named a wildlife refuge in 1937. Since then, it has been designated as a National Natural Landmark, a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, and listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What makes Okefenokee so special, you may ask?

Well it all starts with the fact that Okefenokee remains undisturbed by human encroachment from agriculture or other development, allowing this pristine landscape to provide clean, fresh water to support the incredible array of wildlife found in the southeastern United States, which is otherwise known as North America’s cradle of biodiversity.

Okefenokee harbors more than 600 species of plants, 34 different fish, 40 mammals, 50 reptiles, and 60 amphibians. More than 200 species of birds have even been identified within the swamp as it plays a critical role in the migration of many species. Okefenokee is even home to as many as 1,000 different species of moth!

Okefenokee is also a great place to find adventure and view wildlife up close and personal. On average, 600,000 visitors come to explore Okefenokee each year to view wildlife, recreate on its beautiful canoe and motorboat trails, and camp using its many platforms and shelters found throughout the swamp, all of which support the local economy and foster visitors’ love of nature.

Despite it’s biodiverse, healthy, and incredibly valued ecosystem, Okefenokee and the neighboring St. Marys River were recently listed as endangered in American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers report for 2020. This is because of the heavy mineral sands mining threat they now face on the property along the southeastern boundary of the National Wildlife Refuge.

Our Southeast Program Representative, Christian Hunt, works closely on this issue and knows firsthand just what we stand to lose if this heavy minerals mining activity moves forward.

Let’s take it over to Christian to learn more!

Christian: Thanks Mae.

Part of the reason we’re so alarmed by this project is because it would occur along what is known as the trail ridge. Now the trail ridge is just a sliver of land that directly parallels the Okefenokee swamp, but it’s critically important because it ensures that water is stored within and flows toward the Okefenokee.

Twin Pines minerals - the mining company - wants to mine that land to depths of 50 feet - with operations eventually expected to come within about 400 feet of the swamp itself and were that to occur, the Okefenokee might lose its ability to sustain itself - impacting the alligators, the wading birds, and the various species that depend upon the swamp as well as of course, the wilderness experience for which the place is renowned.

So for all those reasons we consider this project to be an existential threat to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Mae: Thanks Christian and we thank you for your tireless work to protect the Okefenokee and the species that depend on it.

If you’d like to learn more about the natural treasure that is the Okefenokee swamp and National Wildlife Refuge, check out our story map.

You can also check out the Okefenokee Protection Alliance website at protectokefenokee.org for more information.

Thanks for watching and we’ll see you again next #MapMonday.

Mae Lacey
Previous Conservation GIS Analyst

As the previous Conservation GIS Analyst in the Center for Conservation Innovation, Mae provided support and leadership for geospatial product development across Defenders.