April 14, 2020
Christian Hunt

One of America’s Most Endangered River Systems

Wetland of Okefenokee NWR
Michael Lusk

At over 400,000-acres, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia protects almost all North America’s largest blackwater wetlands, sheltering a vast mosaic of pine islands, serpentine blackwater channels and cypress forests that provide habitat for an abundance of wildlife. But like the imperiled species that call the refuge home, Okefenokee itself is now endangered by heavy mineral sand mining that could cover 12,000 acres and come within 400 feet of the swamp. That is why Okefenokee and the St. Marys River - the headwaters of which are formed in the swamp - was listed in American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers report for 2020. 

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Paddler in a canoe Okefenokee Swamp Okefenokee Wilderness Area NWR
Image Credit
Jay Blanton
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Saw palmetto Okefenokee NWR
Image Credit
Jay Blanton

As the largest refuge east of the Mississippi River, Okefenokee is home to a multitude of rare and declining species, such as the eastern indigo, North America’s largest snake. Roughly 15,000 American alligators ply the swamp’s placid waters. Wood storks and sandhill cranes frequent the skies. And gopher tortoises find sanctuary in vast underground burrows, providing shelter to hundreds of other species. 

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Sandhill crane in Florida
Image Credit
Tara Tanaka
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Alligator in Okefenokee NWR
Image Credit
Michael Lusk
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Wood storks in water
Image Credit
Randy Traynor
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Butterfly on a flower in Okefenokee NWR
Image Credit
Steve Brooks/USFWS
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Great Egret in flight in Okefenokee NWR
Image Credit
Steve Brooks/USFWS
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Eastern Indigo Snake
Image Credit
Kevin Enge/FWC

Okefenokee’s dark skies, sense of solitude and untrammeled wilderness would further be blighted by lighting, roadbuilding and permanent facilities. Multiple government agencies have warned that the damage from mining would be permanent and unacceptable. 

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St. Marys River
Image Credit
Ashley Alexander
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Tent and sky in Okenfenokee NWR
Image Credit
Jay Blanton

From this vast wetland ecosystem is born the St. Marys, a blackwater river that meanders 125 miles before spilling into the Atlantic. Largely unspoiled, the St. Marys River shelters a relict population of endangered Atlantic sturgeon, an ancient species that once reached lengths of up to 18 feet and plied river systems from Canada to Maine. The sedimentation, runoff and destruction of wetlands and tributaries caused by mining would likely push the remaining survivors over the edge. 

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Sturgeon
Image Credit
FWS
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Eastern screech owl hiding in a tree
Image Credit
Graham McGeorge
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Florida black bear
Image Credit
fStop Foundation

The National Wildlife Refuge System encompasses more than 850 million acres of habitat dedicated to the conservation of our nation’s wildlife. Our largest network of public lands and waters, the refuge system conserves a stunning array of ecosystems, including forests, rivers and mountains; swamps, marshes and prairie potholes; rocky shorelines, remote islands and deep ocean. With thousands of species, Okefenokee is one of the crown jewels in this system of protected lands and is simply too special to risk to mining. Take action today and tell the Army Corps of Engineers to reject Twin Pines’ permit application.

Author(s)

Christian Hunt

Christian Hunt

Southeast Program Representative
Christian Hunt is responsible for advancing Defenders' conservation objectives throughout the Southeast and defending public lands and listed species such as the red wolf, red knot and Florida panther, among others.
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Help Us Protect Okefenokee

A mining company called Twin Pines Minerals is continuing its campaign to strip mine for titanium on the edge of the unspoiled Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland of international importance.

After being forced by supporters like you to withdraw their last proposal, they’re proposing a smaller project area in a blatant attempt to get around the environmental review process, with plans to expand in the future.

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