The Okefenokee is still in peril

A legal settlement has put one of America's last great wildernesses back in the crosshairs of a destructive mining operation
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia (photo: Tim Parkinson / cc2.0).

One of the last great wild landscapes in the American southeast is still in peril thanks to a fall settlement between the company that wants to mine on the edges of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for heavy-mineral sands and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In June 2022, the USACE assumed review control of the Twin Pines Mining Co. application to mine heavy sands from beneath Trail Ridge, one of the geologic features that helps contain the renowned Okefenokee Swamp. This was great news for those seeking to protect the 438,000-acre refuge, because it took away oversight from the smaller and likely more industry-friendly Georgia Department of Environmental Protection and put it in the hands of the corps under the Biden administration. But shortly after the oversight change, Twin Pines sued the corps — the resulting settlement returned oversight to the state EPD, putting the swamp and the entire refuge back in peril.

Located along the Georgia-Florida line, the Okefenokee is the source of two ecologically important blackwater rivers. The St. Mary River flows east out of the swamp and eventually becomes the border between Georgia and Florida before it pours into the Atlantic Ocean. The Suwannee River flows west from the swamp and enters northern Florida. It eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Any decision to mine along the edges of the swamp could upset the fragile hydrology of the region, and impact water flow into both rivers.

Think of the Okefenokee Swamp as a giant cauldron that captures rainwater from throughout the region. This water filters through peat and leaf litter and settles into the cauldron, which has two spillover spouts — one into the Suwannee and one into the St. Mary. Should the state’s EPD approve the mining plan, there’s a solid chance that the hydrology of the swamp could be altered, and that could impact the flow of water into the St. Mary River, and harm the refuge as a whole. The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in the country, and it draws more than 600,000 tourists to southern Georgia every single year.

The proposed mine would be developed along Trail Ridge, a ridge of sand formed 250,000 years ago that runs from Starke, Fla., north to Jessup, Ga., and essentially forms the eastern lip of the swamp — it contains the water in the swamp and only allows it to spill into the St. Mary. If the ridge is damaged or perforated during the mining, it could create an ecological disaster that could alter the hydrology of the region.

Recognizing the threat, and realizing that the state’s oversight and review is likely not rigorous enough, U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland sent a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, asking him to use his executive powers to put a stop to the mining permitting process and to protect the public lands and waters contained within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“I strongly recommend that the state of Georgia not move ahead with approval for this proposed mine in order to ensure that the swamp and refuge are appropriately protected, consistent with all appropriate legal processes,” Haaland wrote in her letter to Kemp. Haaland visited the refuge this fall and heard from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the entity that oversees the refuge — that has expressed concerns that mining along Trail Ridge could lower water levels in the swamp (and, subsequently, the St. Mary and Suwannee rivers). This could make the swamp more susceptible to severe drought, which is becoming more and more common in the age of climate change.

alligator in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
An Okefenokee alligator (photo: Tim Parkinson / cc2.0).

“The Department has a profound interest in protecting the health and integrity of the swamp ecosystem,” Haaland’s Nov. 22 letter to Kemp reads. “Home to the refuge, it is a unique wetland ecosystem unlike any other found in North America and is one of the world’s most hydrologically intact freshwater ecosystems.”

To date, there has been no response from Gov. Kemp’s office.Haaland is joined by both of Georgia’s U.S. senators — both John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are on record opposing the mine proposal.

In addition to Interior’s worries that mining the sands for minerals like titanium would harm the regional ecosystem, Haaland also expressed concern that mining would be culturally inappropriate — the area is the ancestral home of the Muscogee Nation, also known as the Creek Tribe. Trail Ridge has significant cultural importance to the tribe — as high ground, it was likely used as a primitive highway to move between southern Georgia and northern Florida, a notoriously wet and swampy region. Over the years, archaeologists have discovered ancient settlements and burial grounds along the ridge.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has communicated these concerns before and intends to submit further information outlining these serious consequences if the state moves forward with the permitting process,” Haaland wrote in her letter to the governor. “We are not alone in this assessment, as some of the preeminent experts on this ecosystem and hydrology at the University of Georgia have also raised the alarm about the threat that this type of mining activity in this area poses to the swamp.”

Steve Ingle, the president of the Alabama-based Twin Pines Mining Co., dismissed the letter and the science it references, choosing instead to attack those who oppose the mine.

“The attempts to distort the truth and shut down this project get more desperate as we get closer to a permit,” he said in a prepared statement. “It is an extremely sad reflection on those in power. It is just one more, non-fact-based, disturbing appeal by the Secretary of the Interior and is consistent with the emotional decision they made with respect to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the jurisdictional determination last year. That attempt was quickly pulled back because there was no legal basis for it.”

There are, indeed, several legal precedents the corps could have used to keep oversight under its jurisdiction, but it opted to go the route of least resistance, and allow the state’s EDP to retake control of the permitting process. There are still several tools in the federal regulatory toolbox that could be used to stop the mine, but it would appear that Haaland and Interior are hoping Kemp will come through and spare the federal government the inevitable “overreach” accusations, should it have to step in and protect the region’s fragile hydrology and its irreplaceable water resources.

The Okefenokee Swamp is a unique southern fishery. Its waters, because they pick up tannins as they’re filtered into the swamp, are more acidic than in clearwater rivers. This means they’re home to more tolerant fish, like pickerel, gar and the pernicious bowfin. As the water leaves the swamp and enters both the St. Mary and the Suwanee rivers, it’s diluted a bit thanks to hundreds of both large and small freshwater springs (remember the story of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth?), which mutes the acidity a bit. This makes the rivers more hospitable to more traditional game fish, like largemouth bass, crappie catfish and various sunfish. The Suwannee river is home to a unique subspecies of black bass — the Suwannee bass — found only in its watershed.

In addition to being a unique fishery, the Okefenokee is also home to black bears, otters, thousands of alligators, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and wood storks. It’s also important to hunters, who can chase white-tail deer, wild hogs and wild turkeys that thrive in the region.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the 16th most-visited refuge in the U.S., and it contributes almost $65 million to the local economy, as well as more than 750 sustainable jobs and $5.5 million in state and local tax revenue.