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The Okefenokee under threat: a conversation with Christopher Watt

The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia.” This 438,000 acre blackwater swamp located in the state’s southeast region is the largest blackwater swamp in the country. Essential to the well-being of several interconnected waterways, endangered species that call the swamp home, and local Georgians alike, the Okefenokee Swamp plays an irreplaceable role within local ecosystems, economies, and Georgian culture. However, the Okefenokee is at risk. A pilot mine, proposed by out-of-state corporation Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, is currently pending approval by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and could destabilize 6,000 year old hydrological and ecological processes of the Okefenokee. This mine threatens the swamp, its inhabitants, and the people who rely on the swamp and its downstream waterways for their livelihoods. In an effort to save this critical resource from going extinct, a rallying cry resounds from concerned citizens across the globe during the current open comment period before it closes on April 9th, 2024. We spoke with Christopher Watt — concerned South Georgian, environmental policy graduate student, and member of the Okefenokee UNESCO World Heritage Site advisory committee — to understand what’s at stake and why outdoorsmen across the Southeast should take action.

Warmouth are a unique species of native freshwater game fish found in the Okefenokee and other secluded waters throughout the Southeast.

Warmouth are a unique species of native freshwater game fish found in the Okefenokee and other secluded waters throughout the Southeast.

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Okefenokee: the wild heart of Georgia

Growing up in South Georgia, Christopher Watt always felt like the Okefenokee was a part of his extended backyard. School trips from an early age ensured the Swamp captured his imagination and instilled in him an excitement towards the ways nature can educate.

“The Okefenokee Swamp is beautiful, it's mystical, and there's this aura of unknown to it too, because so much of it actually you really can't access. We learned about how the natural fire regime and the natural ecological processes are still intact and happening as they've evolved for thousands and thousands of years. That's so cool to see as a kid. It made me think, wow, this is what wild is. This is wilderness.”

An angler’s paradise

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Christopher with a healthy, fly-caught chain pickerel — one of the species of freshwater game fish unique to the Swamp.

Despite this imprint, Christopher admits — like many Georgians — that the true value of the swamp was somewhat lost on him. Though every Georgian may know about the Okefenokee, many don’t realize the overwhelming role it plays in a variety of sectors, including those outside the state. And unfortunately — as often is the case — these epiphanies are often prompted by existential crises. 

For Christopher, it wasn’t until he fished the Okefenokee for himself through his Catch 50 initiative — a project to catch a fish on fly in every state, highlighting the incredible natural resources of each and every American’s homewaters — that he began to look deeper into the Okefenokee Swamp. Leveraging his budding career in conservation and active role researching as a graduate student, Christopher got involved in the effort to designate the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site, thereby recognizing the Swamp’s outstanding universal value. From Christopher’s perspective, there are three key issues pertaining to the present Okefenokee situation.

“One is bringing awareness to the swamp itself. Many people don't know it exists and we want to make more people aware of it. Two is bringing awareness to its opportunity to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site — which would bring much more visibility, protection, and visitation to support local economies. And three, acknowledging this proposed titanium dioxide surface mine on the outer edge of the Swamp as an existential threat.”

Why the Okefenokee Swamp matters

The Okefenokee Swamp survives as a largely untouched part of nature. Its intact natural fire regimes, ecological processes, and hydrological processes that have sustained the Swamp for thousands of years — since its inception 6,500 years ago — have allowed it to thrive to this day. Those processes enable the swamp to support such a diversity of ecosystems — including extensive peatbeds responsible for massive carbon sequestration. These are particularly important in an age with unprecedented amounts of carbon entering our atmosphere. Endangered and endemic species such as the Eastern indigo snake, and the longleaf pine — which survives on only 4% of original native range — depend on this delicate ecosystem as a protected stronghold. For commercial and recreational anglers alike, the health of the Okefenokee is also ecologically wed to important fisheries across Georgia and Florida’s coastlines.

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The wilderness of the Okefenokee. Courtesy of Georgia River Network.

Now, a swamp acting as a headwaters for any river is rare, and on its own would be an incredibly unique hydrological feature. The Okefenokee Swamp serves as the headwaters for not just one but two critical river ecosystems. The Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River both emanate from the Swamp and flow seaward, with the St. Mary’s River flowing into the Atlantic Ocean just north of Jacksonville, Florida and Suwanee River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico north of Homosassa, Florida. The Okefenokee not only supports its own incredibly diverse ecosystems, but in acting as a giant water-filter, nurtures the health and productivity of the Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River — as well as the inshore fisheries and estuaries sustained flows of forage and clean water. One of the most critical aspects of a rich and productive inshore fishery is the influx of clean freshwater that supports biodiversity from crustaceans and forage fish, on up the food chain to larger gamefish. Redfishspeckled sea trout, flounder, tarpon, and other inshore gamefish all depend on this balance. If you disturb the source water that flows to the ocean — as in the cases of Southwest Georgia and South Florida’s Everglades — you prevent that freshwater from reaching marine ecosystems, and you lose a lot of that productivity. This issue only worsens when there’s pollution involved (say, effluent-ridden runoff from a mining operation).

“If I'm a fishing guide, or just a recreational angler, my concern would be the downstream ecosystem effects of lowering water levels and pollution to the surrounding coastal environments. If I’m in southeastern Georgia — fishing around the Barrier Islands — as well as in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I'm concerned about potential mining pollution coming in through the St. Mary's River to the Atlantic. Or if I fish around where the Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, north of Homosassa. The productivity of our inshore fisheries is dependent on upstream and inland waterways. I think that the guide community should be aware that the Okefenokee is the headwaters for these two rivers that flow into two of our nation's three marine bodies of water, and the potential threat is real.”

A boon to rural Georgia’s economy

In addition to the ecological implications of the Swamp, the Okefenokee drives over 800,000 annual visitors into the state and fuels a burgeoning tourism industry. On top of the employment generated through tourism, the Okefenokee Swamp provides the necessary infrastructure and protection for the surrounding timber and agricultural industries. The Okefenokee serves as a natural barrier to damaging forest fires, and traps rainwater to fuel the surrounding Floridan aquifer.

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Colors of an Okefenokee cypress break at sunset. Courtesy of Georgia River Network.

The Okefenokee Swamp is an incredible, one-of-a-kind, self-sustaining resource. It provides hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in statewide revenue spread across multiple counties. While the inherent cultural and ecological value of the Okefenokee Swamp seems to speak for itself, the impending threat of a titanium dioxide pilot mine necessitates a consideration of alternative, more sustainable paths forward for this resource. Increasing recreational tourism opportunities — as would be activated through a UNESCO bid — could as much as double the economic realization of the swamp without the adverse impacts of extractive mining. World Heritage Site status comes with increased visibility and visitation to benefit local labor markets and tourism industries. Already, it provides remarkable recreational opportunities with no comparable destination.

“You need to visit this place and experience it for yourself. The Okefenokee Swamp is an incredible place to recreate. So much of its attention and traffic is from recreation: canoers, kayakers, birdwatchers. It's a hugely popular place for birding enthusiasts who are interested in the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the swamp’s many extant, endemic avian species. There are these amazing campsites scattered on raised platforms all throughout the swamp on trails that you can only access by canoe. And, of course, there’s fishing as well. It's such a popular activity there, because the fishing is so good. It's a recreational paradise with lots of hidden secrets. I think it makes it all the more enthralling knowing that this is total wildness. People crave that. They think about it and seek it and wonder if it exists anymore. And I think the Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last places in the Southeast where it still does.”

The existential threat of mining near the Okefenokee Swamp

Despite current designation as a National Wildlife Refuge, the Okefenokee Swamp remains vulnerable to the threat of proposed nearby mining operations. Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, LLC has been issued draft permits by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for a 541 acre titanium dioxide “pilot” mine on the Trail Ridge — the swamp’s eastern boundary. Pilot implies that this project is meant for proof of concept in a series of future mines in the surrounding area.

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Map articulating Okefenokee land and the proposed mine site on the Trail Ridge. Courtesy of Georgia River Network. 

While Twin Pines Minerals has been planning this mine for 3 years and already put forth 5 permits, they’ve been met with staunch opposition. The mining proposal has received thousands of comments. In 2022, the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to stop the proposal after the company failed to consult the indigenous Muskogee Creek tribe, who regard the land as their tribal homelands. However, the company sued the Corps and the case was settled, putting the proposal back on. In 2024, the company was fined $20,000 by GA EPD for drilling exploratory boreholes without the supervision of a professional geologist.

For its permits, Twin Pines Minerals was required to put forth reports and environmental assessments detailing the consequences of their proposed operation. Each report has said there will be no effect on the immediate land or any of its connected and surrounding ecosystems. However, the scientific community — including independent hydrologists, ecologists, geologists and other scientists at University of Georgia and other universities across the US — have raised concerns about their modeling, citing its hyper-localized focus and exclusion of important connections between the Swamp and downstream ecosystems.

The site of the proposed mine — Trail Ridge —  is a unique geological feature that acts as a natural berm or dam for the swamp, keeping its 6,000 year old ecological processes intact. The scientific community has raised concerns that the mine would dig up and disrupt highly compact sediment, threatening to alter the Okefenokee's fundamental hydrology and water levels by making the ridge more porous. 

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Graph depicting Okefenokee water levels. Courtesy of Georgia River Network.

Furthermore, the company is seeking a groundwater withdrawal permit to pump 1.44 million gallons of water per day from the Floridan aquifer. These groundwater removals could contribute to aquifer drawdown and create a hydraulic gradient that would lower water levels in the Swamp. As hydrologists, ecologists, and biologists have voiced, these changes would disrupt the balance of the entire ecosystem.

This isn’t the first time the Trail Ridge has come under threat. In the early ‘90s, DuPont proposed a plan to mine 38,000 acres along the Trail Ridge. However, due to public pressure from nearby communities, environmental groups, and the Federal Government, the company withdrew its request. Bruce Babbitt, who was Secretary of the Interior at the time, voiced his opposition to mining near the Okefenokee, stating, “Titanium is a common mineral, while the Okefenokee is a very uncommon swamp.”

Another major concern is how the increased frequency and intensity of droughts would condition the Swamp to be more prone to larger and more frequent wildfires. Potential drawdown of the Floridan aquifer could have detrimental effects on the local agriculture and timber industries that rely on the aquifer to provide necessary water to their operations, and may become more vulnerable to fire if the Okefenokee were to be drained. This could also put endemic and endangered species of the swamp at risk, threatening some of the last remaining populations of keystone species.

Effective carbon sequestration in the Okefenokee’s giant peat beds hangs in the balance, and, without a 438,000 acre water filter, all the downstream waters — the St. Mary’s River, Suwannee River, and their estuaries — could see increased turbidity and destabilization. This would affect the health and well-being of these rivers, the fisheries they support, and the livelihoods of guides and other people that depend on these resources.

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The initial stages of the Twin Pines' mining operation. Courtesy of Joseph Kelly & Corwyn O'Neil Media.

To make matters worse, an Alabama- based mining company will be profiting at the likely expense of one of Georgia’s greatest natural resources. Christopher isn’t against mining or what it offers to the economy, but feels a foot must come down when short-term greed blindsides our ability to realize — and admit — when we’re making a mistake.

“I'm not opposed to mining. We have to have mining. What I am opposed to is mining when it threatens incredibly valuable ecosystems and natural wonders that are incredibly rare and essential to conservation and sustainability in the future. We also need to keep exploring more sustainable economic opportunities on a global scale. My interest in this is largely in rural economic development. And I recognize that mining near the Okefenokee may significantly alter opportunities for more sustainable development. For example, should the swamp be designated a UNESCO site, it would be a lot more appealing for the long term wellbeing of local economies and communities.”

What a UNESCO designation means for the Okefenokee

UNESCO, or United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is an international body that recognizes natural and cultural sites that have outstanding universal value to all of humanity. The Okefenokee Swamp has been in the cards for World Heritage Site designation for 40 years — longer than any other site in the United States. In 2007, the Swamp was put on Georgia’s tentative list, managed by the National Park Service. However, it wasn’t until just last year in 2023 that the Swamp finally received a bid from the National Park Service for UNESCO designation. It is now on a journey toward official inscription as a World Heritage site, recognizing its outstanding on-going ecological and biological processes as well as natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity. 

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Signpost on the outskirts of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of Georgia River Network.

Christopher explains that, while UNESCO designation doesn’t bring with it any permanent or legally binding protections, it internationally recognizes the immense value of the Swamp, and brings with it a greater visibility that has helped many similar projects gain economically significant traction across the globe. 

In 2022, travel and tourism in Georgia broke records, generating $73 billion in domestic revenue and supporting more than 442,600 jobs. Recognition of the Okefenokee Swamp — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia — as a World Heritage Site spells out another clear and easy victory for this natural treasure of the region’s economy. While a great deal of current tourism concentrates around cities like Atlanta and Savannah, Christopher is hopeful that a UNESCO designation will see greater prosperity spread across the state — growing and sustaining rural economic development. 

Furthermore, the Conservation Fund recently released an economic impact assessment, acknowledging that by 2035, UNESCO designation could as much as double visitation to the Okefenokee. The Swamp’s visitation growth rate would leap from its already impressive 4% to 8%. The assessment also outlines that designation could grow the region’s economic output to over $140 million a year — not only through the Swamp directly, but also to the three counties in the vicinity: Charlton County, Ware County, and Clinch County. Designation is expected to generate around 700 new jobs, with more predicted upside in supporting local industries like lodging, dining, and guiding. While previous visitor spending has largely benefitted only Ware County, the assessment details how the UNESCO designation will expand opportunities for sustainable tourism across all three counties.

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Fishing for bowfin and other freshwater game fish in a secluded backwater of Southeast Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.

In conjunction with UNESCO, three proposed infrastructure development projects centered around the Swamp are already underway. These include an educational nature center, a dark-sky viewing observatory, and a community center. Additionally, renovations are already in progress to improve and expand the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — the national headquarters for the Swamp. Recognition of the economic importance of the swamp to rural economic development has just begun to set in. The hope now is that it’s not too late, and that the demonstrated and cumulative effects of the growing industries and infrastructure surrounding the Swamp will outshine the promise of short-term gain represented by the pilot mine. On top of all this, Christopher acknowledges that the people who have the most to lose are Georgians themselves, who have been waiting longer than anyone to see the promises of the Okefenokee turn into a tangible reality.

“I understand that the local people of Georgia have been told for years that tourism around the Swamp is going to provide economic opportunity, and they're still waiting on it. But I genuinely believe that the opportunity is coming. It just has to be embraced.”

What we can learn from the past

Our short term thinking deprives us of seeing the long term consequences — and prevents us from looking to the past to see how we can avoid making the mistakes we’ve already made. Past experiences with Pebble Minethe ChesapeakeLake Okeechobee should guide our thinking in the face of this issue. Not only our fisheries, but fundamental, unique, and essential ecosystems continue to be threatened by extractive industries. Folks have the opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns during the current open-comment section — ending April 9th, 2024.

We have seen what the angling community can do when it bands together to preserve the resources that sustain it. Just this last October, we saw a victory for Louisiana redfish fisheries ushered in by guides like Capt. Ron Ratliff speaking up. Don’t sit back and be surprised when these fisheries decline. Inaction leads to devastation. If we want to preserve our fisheries — our shared national resources — it’s time to speak up. Christopher stresses the importance of being proactive before having to be responsive. 

“Restoration ecology is great, but it'd be awesome if we never had to use it”

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