Okefenokee Swamp refuge will be nominated for high-profile World Heritage designation
The National Park Service announced Friday that the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge will be nominated as a World Heritage Site, which moves forward the proposal four decades after the refuge was first considered a contender for the honor.
If successful, the southeast Georgia refuge would become the first World Heritage Site in the state, and it would join the ranks of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. Right now, there are two dozen World Heritage Sites in the United States and 1,157 sites internationally.
“It really does put it on the global stage,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of Okefenokee Swamp Park and Okefenokee Adventures.
“This is a great next step for the Okefenokee, a great next step for our community, and also a great next step for talking about why swamps, bogs, fens, wetlands are all really important components of our landscape,” she said.
The federal agency announced Friday that it had asked the refuge’s staff to assemble a proposal for the swamp to be added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.
The decision to move forward with the nomination was based on input from a federal interagency panel and a groundswell of public comment in support of the designation. The refuge was first added to the U.S. tentative list of sites in 1982.
It will likely take another two or three years for the nomination to go through an inscription process. The World Heritage Committee, which includes representatives from 21 nations, will have the final say.
The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest intact blackwater wetland in North America, and the site’s more than 400,000 acres are home to thousands of species of plants and wildlife, including some vulnerable animals like the eastern indigo snake and as many as a thousand different kinds of moths.
The park service also noted the role of the refuge’s undisturbed peat beds in storing thousands of years’ worth of carbon.
More than 10,000 comments were submitted as part of a public input phase on whether to nominate the refuge, according to the park service. No one opposed the nomination, but some commenters said they would like to see sites associated with the Civil Rights Movement honored.
Environmentalists celebrated the decision, hailing the development as motivation to protect the site.
“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.”
The nomination proposal is moving forward as an Alabama-based company seeks permits to mine near the refuge, which has sparked a public outcry but found some support among those who say the area sorely needs jobs.
That mining proposal is still pending with the state Environmental Protection Division.
Clinching the high-profile international distinction would be a major tourism boost for the region, where ecotourism is already a significant draw.
Bednarek said the community sees the nomination process as part of a long-term strategic opportunity.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with some of the decisions, some of the permits that are pending, and it really isn’t in our purview,” she said. “We do know what is in our purview is supporting this inscription process in this designation, so that there’s a component of our economic ecosystem that can grow and thrive and create jobs and create prosperity.
“And we hope that in the long term, that helps folks see that there is a sustainable and positive strategic direction for southeast Georgia.”
There has been a bipartisan push recently for the federal government to nominate the refuge for this international honor. Georgia’s U.S. senators and a group of congressional representatives, led by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff and Pooler Republican Buddy Carter, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Interior in February urging the agency to nominate the site.
Ossoff praised Friday’s announcement, saying the designation “would encourage environmental protection and economic prosperity for the region.” Ossoff has called on the state to reject the mining proposal.
Friday’s public notice made clear that the designation would be limited to the refuge and that the site would remain under U.S. control.
“Neither inclusion in the list nor inscription as a World Heritage Site imposes legal restrictions on owners or neighbors of sites, nor does it give the United Nations any management authority or ownership rights in U.S. World Heritage Sites, which continue to be subject only to U.S. law,” the notice says.