Opinion

Protect the Okefenokee Now or Risk Losing It Forever

Once again, the mining industry has taken aim at one of our most cherished wild places — the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — reigniting a debate once thought settled. Emboldened by an environmental regulatory rollback made by the Trump administration, Twin Pines Minerals has set its sights on obtaining permits to mine near the Okefenokee in a matter of months.

During my tenure as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over 20 years ago, the DuPont company attempted to create an industrial mining complex on the doorstep of the Okefenokee, the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi and arguably our country’s healthiest remaining wetland of significance.

The project was not only a threat to the Okefenokee, but to the integrity of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, the only system of public lands in the world established primarily for wildlife conservation. Following a tidal wave of national outrage, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt traveled to the Okefenokee and decried the project, which ultimately led to the abandonment of the mine and put other mining companies on notice.

Rather than acknowledge this history, Twin Pines Minerals has been relentless in its effort to develop the first phase of a roughly 8,000-acre titanium mine just south of the former DuPont site, atop a geological feature critical to water storage within the swamp. In search of minerals primarily used in the development of household paint pigment, miners would dig up vast swaths of this land, churn it together and redeposit the soil in pits.

Twins Pines has been warned by the FWS and independent hydrologists that mining could permanently damage the entire 438,000-acre wetland and compromise the home of over 10,000 alligators, rare wading birds and numerous federally protected species.

Typically, projects that may cause environmental harm would be subject to a rigorous public process and independent review. Twin Pines, however, has sidestepped federal oversight altogether by taking advantage of the “Waters of the United States” replacement rule, a Trump-era rule that could effectively strip protections from half our nation’s wetlands, endangering wildlife and local communities throughout the country.

Though we expect the Biden administration to review and hopefully repeal this rule, its dismantling may be too late for the Okefenokee. With a handful of state permits pending, the very thing Secretary Babbitt and I fought to prevent over two decades ago could become reality in a matter of months.

As both a major carbon sink and a species stronghold in the Southeast, the Okefenokee and the protection of its buffer lands must be a priority in the effort to protect 30% of our lands and waters by 2030 to truly mitigate the devastation of the extinction and climate crises.

Securing this special place would also be good for people. The Okefenokee is an important part of the natural and cultural heritage of the region, and vital to the local economy. Given what we know from visitor surveys, if the water quality or quantity of the Okefenokee were impacted, future tourism may shrink by half. Industrial mining could also undermine the potential for the Okefenokee to receive World Heritage status, a rare designation reserved for only a handful of world-class natural sites. This designation would draw many more visitors to the region over the long term, providing a sustainable alternative to the boom-and-bust cycle offered by the mining industry.

For the past century, the protection of the Okefenokee has been a story of restraint and humility. To allow mining along its edge — to gamble with its health — would amount to a moral failing. It would require us to ignore the realities of mining operations; to disregard the inevitability of accidents; to assume, somehow, that excavators, permanent lighting and plumes of dust can coexist with wilderness and the thousands of species that call the Okefenokee home. That is a mistake we cannot afford to make.

Instead, we hope the Department of the Interior, Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and FWS leadership act decisively to restore protections, bring together public stakeholders and provide the financial resources to bring the prospect of mining near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to a close, once and for all.

 

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife and was previously the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997-2001.

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