Will the Okefenokee Swamp be Governor Kemp’s conservation win or Georgia’s loss?

Environmentalists say it is critical for state leaders to intervene to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from plans to dig for minerals near the edge of the national landmark. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Of the Seven Natural Wonders in Georgia, only one has become globally transcendent, attracting millions of visitors from all over the world: the Okefenokee Swamp. By providing sanctuary to wildlife, recreation for people and millions of dollars for local communities, the Okefenokee has provided Georgia with immeasurable value, while anchoring the state’s outdoor tourism economy.

With a mine proposed along its edge, it’s now time for the state of Georgia to return the favor by protecting the swamp and its people once more.

In the 1990s, DuPont attempted to mine the Trail Ridge, the geologic formation that sustains the Okefenokee. Few, if any, projects in Georgia’s history engendered greater opposition. After deeming mining a “very serious threat,” the Georgia Board of Natural Resources opposed operations. Gov. Zell Miller sent a similar message, as did the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Senator Max Cleland.

After DuPont abandoned the project due to unprecedented opposition, no one thought a company would have the audacity—the disregard for public sentiment—to try again. None, that is, until a handful of corporate executives created Twin Pines Minerals LLC, an Alabama-based company designed to accomplish what DuPont couldn’t.

For Twin Pines Minerals, the DuPont saga proved instructive. Where DuPont started big, proposing all the acreage upfront, Twin Pines began small, slicing up its larger enterprise into bite-sized projects, and locating the first as far from the swamp as possible.

This common tactic, known as illegal segmentation, conceals the full scale of a project until after the first and most difficult set of permits is secured. With its property abutting Swamp Perimeter Road, operations are expected to eventually come within 400-feet of the Okefenokee itself.

Citizens from Madison County, whose air and waters were poisoned by the burning of creosote-soaked railroad ties, have urged residents and commissioners in Charlton County not to trust the leadership of Twin Pines. In Florida, Twin Pines committed a slew of mining infractions, and its president—in his capacity with other companies—has been tied to violations throughout the Southeast. Most recently, Twin Pines broke ground at their Charlton County facility without acquiring necessary approval.

Given such transgressions, it would be foolish to reward Twin Pines with permits to mine close to Georgia’s most valuable natural asset. The Okefenokee is tremendously large and fragile, and a one-of-a-kind resource. It needs only be damaged once to be diminished forever.

Should mining occur, it’s not a matter of if such impacts will occur, but when and to what extent. Under the best-case scenario, important wetlands will be destroyed, with miners ultimately consuming roughly 6,000 football fields’ worth of land, just feet from the swamp. If the fears of 45 scientists (including some of Georgia’s leading researchers) are realized, operations could impair the Okefenokee’s ability to sustain itself.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also plainly made that case against Twin Pines’ project, warning of potentially permanent damages to its property, increases in wildfire occurrence and impacts to imperiled species.

As a testament to this universal concern, two former cabinet members, three USFWS directors and two Georgia commissioners of the Department of Natural Resources spoke out against the project. Furthermore, over 100,000 people have commented, including from surrounding cities, with roughly 60,000 submissions already sent to Georgia regulators. Even Chemours, an international mining entity, renounced any interest in purchasing the project from Twin Pines.

State legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, introduced legislation this year to prohibit the issuance of mining permits along Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee. While the bill did not pass in the 2022 session, the group of bipartisan leaders are responding to the upwelling against dangerous mining. The bill’s sponsors have indicated that they still intend to permanently protect the Okefenokee, teeing up a historic opportunity, the ramifications of which will be felt for generations.

Twin Pines’ interest and investment in Southeast Georgia will not last. But the Okefenokee will remain, and so too will the communities that depend on its well-being. Entrusting the fate of the swamp and its people to an out-of-state company and known bad actor would be a gamble of the highest stakes.

We must not relent on our efforts to protect the Okefenokee from mining. Contact Gov. Brian Kemp here, and state regulators at [email protected]

Ask that they protect Georgia’s own, as state leaders did decades ago, by simply rejecting the permits for this dangerous project. 

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Alice Keyes
Alice Keyes

Alice Keyes is the VP of Coastal Conservation for One Hundred Miles, a nonprofit working to protect and preserve Georgia's coast through advocacy, education, and citizen engagement.

Christian Hunt
Christian Hunt

Christian Hunt is the Southeast Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of imperiled species and their habitats in North America.