A notice in the Federal Register Monday signaled a new phase in the decades-long quest for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to become a World Heritage Site. The refuge now has the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of the Interior to prepare a draft nomination for the United Nations designation.
“That’s the green light,” Refuge Manager Michael Lusk said Friday in anticipation of the notice. “The starting gun just went off.”
The refuge and its partner, the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, will prepare the formal nomination package by September 2024 so the National Parks Service can put forward the nomination in February 2025.
A World Heritage Site is a natural or man-made site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance under the World Heritage Convention. The current list of World Heritage Sites, maintained by the United Nations Environmental, Scientific, and Cultual Organization, or UNESCO, comprises 1,199 sites in 168 countries. The U.S. is home to 25 of those sites, which include the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Everglades and Yosemite national parks. If successful in its bid, the Okefenokee would be the first U.S. wildlife refuge to earn the designation.
This beloved landscape deserves it, Lusk said at a community gathering Friday in Waycross.
Unlike the Florida Everglades, the Okefenokee’s hydrology is intact, Lusk said. And with the exception of feral hogs, it’s nearly free of invasive animals and plants.
“So what you have is a giant wetland of over 400,000 acres that is a fully functioning self contained ecosystem that is as it would have appeared when European colonists first arrived on the continent,” Lusk said. “So that is absolutely amazing.”
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge in the Eastern U.S. and includes more than 350,000 acres of designated wilderness. It’s renowned for its mirror-like black water streams and its deep reserves of carbon-storing peat.
“We also have lots and lots of critters: 234 bird species, 64 reptiles, and 50 mammals,” Lusk said.
The World Heritage Site designation would extend to the boundaries of the National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s for land that’s already owned by the federal government,” Lusk said. “There’s no private land involved in World Heritage Site designation. There’s no state land involved in World Heritage Site designation. This is just federal land, already owned and managed by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.”
The Okefenokee Swamp Park is functioning as a project management team for the bid, said Executive Director Kim Bednarek. The nonprofit has raised over $100,000 of its $500,000 goal to fund the effort, which requires continued community conversations and the hiring of experts to create the inscription documents. It’s holding an art auction and gala Nov. 9 in Brunswick.
What about mining?
The movement on the World Heritage Site designation comes as state regulators at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division are evaluating a controversial permit application from Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals to strip mine for titanium dioxide and other minerals on private land near the eastern side of the refuge. Academic researchers as well as hydrologists from the National Park Service say the proposed mine risks altering the swamp’s hydrology, but Twin Pines officials disagree.
“As we have stated many times, the Okefenokee Swamp is a natural resource that is protected, and will continue to be protected, given the distance of our proposed mine site from the refuge and the nature of our activities,” Steve Ingle, president, Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, wrote in a prepared statement. “We appreciate the efforts to secure designation as a World Heritage Site. It will not impact our permit applications just as our work will not impact the swamp.”
The designation does not provide additional protections for the refuge or impose additional restrictions, Lusk said. It’s unclear what the issuance of a mining permit to Twin Pines would mean for the World Heritage site bid.
“We don’t have any evidence that would suggest to us that if the mine permit action is issued that it would endanger this designation,” Okefenokee Swamp Park Board Chairman William Clark said at Friday’s meeting. “But our feeling going straight ahead is mine or no mine the swamp has outstanding commercial value and we feel strongly that it should be designated. We feel strongly that when that happens, it’s going to have a great economic impact. And that’s longer term than any mine.”
Josh Marks, President of Georgians for the Okefenokee, and a leader of the successful fight to protect the Okefenokee from DuPont’s mining proposal in the 1990s, supports the World Heritage Site designation and sees a conflict between it and plans to mine.
“Trumpeting the swamp’s conservation, eco-tourism and cultural values is where all of our efforts should be focused, instead of considering short-term extractive industry that could damage this precious resource,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “It should be obvious to everyone, starting with Gov. Kemp and EPD, that TPM’s strip mining project along the swamp’s ecosystem boundary is wholly incompatible with a World Heritage Site and could actually damage the Oke’s chances of achieving that recognition. Accordingly, EPD should follow the science, the law and the will of the Georgia public and deny TPM’s permit applications now. And the Georgia Legislature should pass the Okefenokee Protection Act to permanently prohibit mining along the entirety of the Oke’s eastern boundary. Those two actions will show UNESCO that Georgia is serious about protecting the swamp and that the Okefenokee deserves the ultimate recognition of a World Heritage Site listing.”
Distrust of U.N.
At Friday’s meeting Clark addressed some pushback against the designation that he had heard from conservative media outlets.
“There are people who honestly believe that if the United Nations were to designate the Okefenokee as a World Heritage Site, that means that China would be able to come in here and make decisions on what happens to the land, that we will be giving up the sovereignty of the United States and the state of Georgia to make decisions,” he said. “And that’s totally not true.”
Inscription as a World Heritage Site doesn’t imposes legal restrictions on owners or neighbors of sites, nor does it give the United Nations any management authority or ownership rights in the U.S.
“The way I like to put it is, it’s sort of like getting a five-star review in Travelocity, right?” Lusk said. “It’s like the United Nations saying this is an outstanding place in the world. We recognize it as that. But that does not give them any control. It does not give them any management.”
The committee at the U.N. that makes the decision on sites does consider, however, whether the communities around the area support the designation.
“And so they will actually come out and they will talk to the local communities and say, do you support becoming a World Heritage Site?” Lusk said. “And if there is not support for it, then it doesn’t become a World Heritage Site.”
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents Charlton and Ware counties, which along with Clinch serve as gateway communities for the refuge, has supported the bid for the Okefenokee to become a World Heritage Site. In February, Carter joined U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff in urging the U.S. Interior Department to nominate the Okefenokee Refuge for the designation. Then in June, Carter introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to name the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some right wing media outlets have criticized Carter for these efforts. Carter was scheduled to take part in Friday’s meeting in Waycross. He canceled Thursday night due to a scheduling conflict, the meeting organizers said. Carter’s weekly newsletter on Sunday indicated that on Friday his day began with a 15-minute radio interview followed by “a conference call with staff and a constituent to discuss the Okefenokee Swamp.”