Dozens of national, state, and local organizations urged Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland and the U.S. Department of the Interior today to formally authorize the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s bid for World Heritage listing.
The Letter follows Secretary Haaland’s visit to the refuge on Friday, after which, she took to social media to express the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting special places like the Okefenokee.
Today’s letter identifies World Heritage nomination as one key step the administration could take to protect the Okefenokee and its vast ecosystems and biodiversity for future generations. World Heritage status would also increase global visibility and provide opportunities for growth in sustainable tourism, with related economic benefits for communities in the region.
“As one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems, the Okefenokee’s importance cannot be overstated,” said Christian Hunt, Southeast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “The Swamp’s inky waters and cypress forests shelter thousands of species and provide an unmatched wilderness experience. I can’t think of a more deserving World Heritage Site."
“It’s an opportunity to unite the communities of the Okefenokee in a meaningful dialogue on the many benefits of having both a National Wildlife Refuge and a World Heritage Site at the heart of the region,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
Approval from the Interior Department will kick off a years-long nomination process, including the preparation of a detailed nomination dossier. The dossier will highlight Okefenokee’s “Outstanding Universal Value,” the international metric used to evaluate potential World Heritage sites.
“The Okefenokee is more than ready for its chance at World Heritage status,” said Elise Bennett, deputy Florida director and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s like no place else on Earth. This unique wetland supports an astounding quantity and diversity of species, from the prehistoric-looking Suwannee alligator snapping turtle to the wizened wood stork.”
“The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Unique ecologically and visited by people from all over the world, recognition as a World Heritage site is well justified and long overdue,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
A thriving and dynamic system, the Okefenokee’s outstanding universal value is evident in its vast biodiversity, rare longleaf pine ecosystems and unique peat formations that contain information about global conditions over the past 5,000 years or more.
The Okefenokee is also a unique rainfall-fed headwaters wetland and the origin of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. Unlike other renowned wetlands, it remains largely unharmed by human interference.
The United States originally identified the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a potential World Heritage Site in 1982 and added it to a formal “tentative list” in 2007.
Earlier this year, the refuge launched a unique public-private partnership with the Okefenokee Swamp Park to provide project management and financial resources to support Okefenokee’s World Heritage bid. With these resources in place, the refuge is well-positioned to prepare and submit a successful nomination.
Nomination and inscription on the World Heritage List is the highest honor in the world for sites of ecological importance like the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The designation does not impose any new rules and regulations.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern United States, spanning more than 400,000 acres and encompassing approximately 93% of the wetlands that make up the Okefenokee Swamp.
The refuge also contains more than 350,000 acres of congressionally designated National Wilderness Area that supports hundreds of species of plants and animals, including the imperiled red-cockaded woodpecker and eastern indigo snake.
The refuge’s mission is “to protect and enhance wildlife and its habitat, ensure integrity of the ecological system, and embrace the grandeur, mystery, and cultural heritage that lead to an enrichment of the human spirit.”