Guest columnist Gail Krueger writes that paddling on the Okefenokee Swamp’s dark tannin-stained water is like floating on a mirror. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife
From 1996 through 2002, I covered DuPont Co.’s scheme to mine titanium next to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as the environmental reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Now — as I reflect on those days and on the current Twin Pines Minerals proposition from more than two decades and 2,867 miles away — I am reminded of something reporters learn early on: some stories never really go away.
I am dismayed that the fate of this incredible resource is, once again, up for grabs and am troubled that this jewel of Georgia and wetland of international importance still needs permanent protection at its boundaries. However, the sad fact is the seeds for the current plot were foreshadowed in that earlier chapter. Shame on all of us for letting it get to this again.
My relationship with the Okefenokee Swamp is long and winding, much like the rivers that thread through these primeval wetlands.
My first view of the swamp was from a plane window in 1989. I was headed to Savannah as a volunteer on the Caretta Project, protecting sea turtles on Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge. I wondered about the black spot north of Jacksonville.
Years later, I penned the lead of my first story covering DuPont Co.’s plan: “Night flights approaching Jacksonville Fla. cross a space on the earth where no light shines. From some airborne angles, the blackness in the corner of southeast Georgia stretches from horizon to horizon.’’
That initial story, along with a half dozen related ones, appeared on December 29, 1996. The issue overview took up most of the A section of the last Sunday paper of the year. After months convincing editors the story was going to be big for us, they relented and granted me the space needed to tackle it. From then until I left the paper in 2002, they remained generous with the ink and newsprint needed to explore an issue as convoluted and tangled as the Okefenokee itself.
Between that initial high-altitude glimpse and that first page-one story, lots of life happened.
First, I moved to Georgia beguiled by the raw beauty of the barrier islands, the deep green shade of Savannah’s squares, and yes, promise of exploring the Okefenokee. I found friends and community with a group of paddlers, many of them Sierra Club members. Some of the same folks later plastered blue and white “Stop DuPont” stickers on their boats and cars and attended dozens of public meetings.
My first taste of the Okefenokee was an overnight paddle from Kingfisher Landing to Maul Hammock and back to Kingfisher in an old Grumman aluminum canoe with a Sierra Club friend named Charles. He had not paddled the swamp for years until I begged him to get me in there.
We launched in the early morning, the day still cool but steaming with the promise of heat, humidity, and mosquitos. Paddling on the dark tannin-stained water is like floating on a mirror. The reflection on the still water is so perfect, it was several trips later before I learned to look at my photos of moss-draped cypress trees to determine which direction was up and which was the reflection. Only the ripples from our paddles told the truth.
The swamp is a primal-feeling place, even though it is geologically young — about 7,000 years old, according to geologists who weighed in on the DuPont plans. Time stops in the swamp, but the cries and songs of the 200 bird species that inhabit it go on day and night. Many of the 60 species of reptiles living there are easy to spot from a canoe. I saw the biggest soft-shell turtle I’d ever seen and my first siren salamander on that trip. So full of life, it seemed to me that the Okefenokee must be like the world first was.
The Maul Hammock wet prairie opened wide before us, the platform for our overnight stay tucked into a mound thick with titi bushes. One step off the platform and the surface under my feet quivered as the thick layer of peat warned me it was really a floating island. This was the “quivering earth” the Creeks spoke of when they named the place.
At dusk, orange alligator eyes reflected all around in my flashlight beam. Blackness rose into the sky as the sun set, revealing the star show only seen by those not afraid of real darkness. Barred owls hooted through the night, and at dawn, the Sandhill cranes rose trumpeting by the hundreds.
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I was hooked, and I still am. Later, listing to DuPont’s front men discuss the pros of mining in endless meetings, I often thought to myself, “Hey, have you ever been in there?”
I was paddling deep into the swamp; canoeing or kayaking each of the 120 miles of wilderness canoe trails dozens of times before I ever heard rumors DuPont sought a mining permit for some of the 38,000 acres it owned and leased along Trail Ridge.
As a paddler, I got to know some of the people in the area. Like Bernice Chesser Rodenberry, who was born on Billy’s Island and whose father was a swamp logger before it became a refuge, and Folkston native Judy Drury, who answered the phone at the refuge. Later, some like the refuge ranger who spoke eloquently off the record about her fear of what mining would do to water levels, became sources. Those many miles of paddling enriched my reporting as I questioned scientists, politicians, DuPont representatives, and conservationists and attended endless hours of public meetings.
Along the way, I met and married a marvelous, brilliant writer and editor named Doug, who was also a dynamic paddler. Doug, our friends Paddling Dave and Debbie, and I made several trips into the swamp each year along with a small rotating cast of fellow swampers. And, on a tough low water paddle on the red trail, Dave introduced us to a kayaker visiting from Michigan, who years later would become my life partner after Doug died.
Once the DuPont plan came fully to light, the outcry against it rang loudly from Folkston to Atlanta to D.C. DuPont halted its mining plans, announcing: “As of today, we are stopping activities related to our proposed mining operations near Folkston, Ga. We are stopping those activities while we immediately engage in an inclusive collaborative process.”
DuPont paid for a facilitator to conduct unprecedented collaborative discussions among all the parties, except the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which refused to participate due to its standing as a federal agency.
DuPont representatives hoped to prove they really could dredge huge pits reaching below the groundwater level and not disturb the underlying hydrology of the swamp and the two rivers, the St. Marys, and the Suwanee, that flow from it. After two years of talks, the question of whether such mining could be done without forever damaging the swamp could not be answered with scientific certainty. It still can’t.
In September 1998, the collaborative voted to accept a plan from its subcommittee of environmentalists to “forever” end the threat of mining. DuPont would donate land to the refuge, and a world-class center for environmental education would be built by repurposing the abandoned Folkston elementary school. There would be financial compensation all around based on the estimated value of the untouched titanium.
In February 1999, the formal agreement, with a $90 million price tag, precluding anyone from ever mining titanium next to the swamp was signed. DuPont, one of very few companies in the world processing titanium, would maintain its international competitive edge knowing the ore would not be touched. They would also avoid a potential public relations nightmare that could have happened if anything went wrong. Then, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit blasted the agreement, calling it a grossly inflated buyout.
The hunt for full funding began; it was never secured. The old elementary school remained boarded up for years, a silent symbol of that failure. I moved on from the newspaper in 2002 and relocated to the Pacific Northwest in 2012, but never stopped paddling and never stopped loving the swamp.
In August 2003, DuPont permanently retired its mining rights on 16,000 acres next to the refuge and donated the land to the Conservation Fund, a non-profit environmental preservation group. DuPont’s gift did not eliminate the possibility of mining next to the swamp as others could pick up the mining rights left on 21,000 acres it leased from local timber companies. Some thought no one would ever have the nerve to threaten the swamp with mining again; they were wrong.
In 2019, a handful of corporate executives created Twin Pines Minerals LLC, an Alabama-based company dedicated to finish what DuPont started and walked away from. Twin Pines learned some lessons though, chopping up its project into bite-sized segments to conceal the full scale of the disastrous mess it will create until after the first and most difficult set of permits is secured.
Again, Georgia legislators, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decried the plan, as have scientists and conservationists from around the world. Some 100,000 citizens have signed petitions against the project, plus another 60,000 sent in written comments. I was one of them.
This year, Georgia state legislators introduced legislation to permanently prohibit mining along Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee. The bill did not pass in the 2022 session, but a group of bipartisan leaders are responding to the threat. The bill’s sponsors have indicated that they intend to permanently protect the Okefenokee. It’s about time. And a grass roots level effort for funding has begun as the 75-year-old non-profit Okefenokee Swamp Park forwarded a project to build a multi-campus complex for conservation education which was just shortlisted by Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff.
I returned to Savannah this January and spent time with dear friend and one-time Savannah Morning News co-worker Mary Landers. She and her husband were among the tight little group we paddled the swamp with. She followed me at the newspaper as the environmental reporter and recently moved to The Current, where she continues to track the story.
At the time, I had taken to wearing a pendant modeled after a St. Christopher’s medal created by an all-women jewelry maker in New Orleans. Called “Our Lady of the Southern Swamps,” the pendant depicted an egret flying through a cypress swamp, with Spanish moss dangling from tree branches and a gator lashing its tail. The Swamp Saint stood in the center up to her knees in water, with a halo of light radiating over her head.
I gave this talisman to Mary and told she must keep the swamp safe for me and for future generations. I would like to think that “Our Lady of the Southern Swamps” is protecting the boundaries of the Okefenokee and keeping this unique ecosystem safe from exploitation by companies that are far more interested in profit margins and return-on-investment than bird calls and reptile habitat, but I know better. The reality is that it takes all of us working together and raising our voices in one mighty act of resistance in order to vanquish the forces that threaten to destroy this precious natural treasure, time and time again.
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