National Park Service to Nominate Continent’s Largest Blackwater Wetland

A World Heritage Site designation is reserved for the most superlative places on the earth. It is only fitting a place like the Okefenokee — with its unparalleled wild character, thriving biodiversity and cultural significance — be considered for this recognition.

Ben Prater, Southeast Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife.
Atlanta, GA

Following widespread bipartisan support, the National Park Service announced today that it will nominate the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List. 

Inscription on the World Heritage List would honor the Okefenokee’s natural and cultural significance and solidify the United States’ commitment to protect it. 

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Landscape shot from swamp - Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge - Georgia
Running Wild Media

“This is an opportunity to unite the communities of the Okefenokee and involve people in a meaningful way, activating the natural resources economy by supporting this collective effort to bring international recognition to one of the world’s great natural wonders, the Okefenokee,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

The Okefenokee’s World Heritage bid has bipartisan congressional support, and the Park Service received more than 10,300 public comments in support of moving forward with a nomination. The nomination also has the endorsement of more than 30 national, state and local organizations.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 400,000 acres, encompassing approximately 93% of the mosaic of wetlands that comprise the Okefenokee Swamp. Its vast, untrammeled ecosystems support hundreds of species of plants and animals, including endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and threatened eastern indigo snakes. Okefenokee would be the first property managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to earn the World Heritage distinction.

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Alligator moving through the grass to water - Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge - Georgia
Running Wild Media

“It’s thrilling that Okefenokee is finally taking this momentous step toward World Heritage inscription,” said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s a huge motivator to protect this irreplaceable, international treasure. From the towering old-growth cypress to the tea-colored wetlands teeming with amphibians and reptiles, every last inch of Okefenokee deserves our recognition and protection.” 

“We’re delighted to see Okefenokee NWR take the next step in its journey towards inclusion on the World Heritage List,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of our best examples of holistic conservation in the United States. The Okefenokee Swamp is intact due in large part to the establishment of the refuge in 1937. The Swamp comprises the headwaters of two rivers, it provides habitat for a myriad of wildlife species, including several endangered species, it sequesters vast amounts of carbon in its wet, peat soils that might otherwise be emitted and exacerbate global warming and climate change — and its list of outstanding attributes goes on and on.”

“A World Heritage Site designation is reserved for the most superlative places on the earth,” said Ben Prater, Southeast Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife. “It is only fitting a place like the Okefenokee — with its unparalleled wild character, thriving biodiversity and cultural significance — be considered for this recognition. This nomination is an important step to ensure this precious and irreplaceable piece of our natural heritage is protected into the future.”

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Okefenokee wilderness area
Jay Blanton

Today’s notice kicks off a years-long nomination process, including the preparation of a detailed nomination dossier highlighting the Okefenokee’s “outstanding universal value,” the international metric used to evaluate potential World Heritage sites.

The Okefenokee’s universal value is evident from its vast biodiversity, rare longleaf pine ecosystems, and unique peat formations that contain information about global conditions over thousands of years. It’s 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 Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge will draft the nomination through a unique public-private partnership with the nonprofit 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 forward a successful nomination to the National Park Service.

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.

Founded in 1946, the Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to providing visitor access and interpretive education that inspires conservation advocacy for the Okefenokee Swamp. The OSP cares about the lands and waters on which the Okefenokee and surrounding communities depend and is actively stewarding the organization to envision a catalytic role in the region as a resource of inspiration, education, and positive economic development.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is a nonprofit exclusively focused on protecting, promoting and enhancing the 850-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, the world’s largest network of lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation.

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

Media Contact

Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst
Southeast Program Director

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