By Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity
If you meander north up Florida’s iconic Suwannee River just past the Florida-Georgia state line, you’ll suddenly find yourself engulfed in the timeless natural wonder of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
With its tea-colored waters and stately 400-year-old cypress stands offering a cathedral-like safe haven to thousands of species, the Okefenokee is globally exceptional: one of the largest undamaged blackwater swamps in the world.
And the ecological benefits of the refuge’s pristine waters reach far beyond its borders. Along with providing sanctuary for one the nation’s most diverse collections of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects, the Okefenokee is the lifeblood of two Florida rivers — the Suwannee and the St. Marys.
An Alabama corporation wants to mine for titanium right on the Okefenokee’s doorstep. The mine is proposed on an area known as Trail Ridge, which serves as a natural bulkhead protecting Okefenokee’s unspoiled waters. Researchers say any mining on Trail Ridge poses an existential threat to the integrity of the Okefenokee— and the native plant and animal species who call this remarkable place home.
It’s common sense that mining next to a world-class wetland is a very bad idea. Expert opinions back this up. Federal wildlife experts and independent hydrologists have warned that the mine would risk permanently altering the natural hydrology of the swamp, sending potentially damaging shockwaves through natural ecosystems and further endangering iconic southeastern species, from rare red-cockaded woodpeckers to eastern indigo snakes.
Brimming with biodiversity, Okefenokee is like no other place on Earth. As many as 1,000 types of moths float over its waters and lowlands. At night a symphony of frogs and insects accompanies a view of the universe unimpaired by artificial light.
The 402,000 acres of swamp and upland habitat protected within the refuge serve as a lifeboat of wilderness amidst a rising tide of urbanization across the Southeast. It’s part of the historical range of endangered Florida panthers and holds a potential key to the big cats’ recovery. It protects pure, ephemeral wetlands needed by critically imperiled flatwoods salamanders for mating.
As coastal populations of salamanders continue to be besieged by salty storm surge and rising seas, the Okefenokee’s freshwaters become more and more critical to the species’ existence. The refuge is an archive of ancient environmental secrets. Below Okefenokee’s waters, centuries of decomposed vegetation form a thick bed of peat that contains information on global environmental changes over thousands of years.
While the Okefenokee is important in its own right, it is also intimately linked to the health of Florida’s aquatic biodiversity. It’s the headwaters of the St. Marys River and the iconic Suwannee, which supports rare and imperiled freshwater biodiversity like Suwannee moccasinshell mussels and prehistoric-looking Suwannee alligator snapping turtles. Protecting Okefenokee means protecting Florida’s rivers, too.
Right now, the state of Georgia is considering whether to approve the mine, and it’s seeking feedback from the public.
With the Okefenokee’s future on the line, Floridians have as much at stake as Georgians. It’s time for us to speak up, urge Georgia to deny the mining permit, and save this irreplaceable treasure. There’s far too much at risk to stand silent while this reckless proposal proceeds. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division will accept written comments emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org through March 20.
Elise Bennett is Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
This op-ed was originally published in the Jacksonville Times Union, which is a member of The Invading Sea media collaborative. The collaborative focuses on the threats posed to Florida by the warming climate.