One of the jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge system is being threatened by a proposed strip mine. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge spans 396,000 acres in Southern Georgia, making it the largest National Wildlife Refuge east of the Mississippi. The Okefenokee Swamp, most of which is inside the Refuge, is the largest blackwater wetland in North America. According to the University of Georgia, the swamp is also considered “the least disturbed freshwater ecosystem on the Atlantic Coastal Plain.”

But that may change soon. In February 2024, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) released draft permits for a long-contested 584-acre strip mine proposed by Twin Pines Minerals. The proposed mine would extract metals like titanium from ancient sand dunes along the National Wildlife Refuge’s eastern border. To run the mine, Twin Pines is also requesting to pump 1.4 million gallons of groundwater from the Florida aquifer. 

Experts are concerned about the potential ecological impacts of the proposed mine. In a letter to Georgia state regulators obtained by the Associated Press, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned that the mine’s water use could severely harm the Okefenokee’s wildlife habitat in the refuge and beyond it. 

Additionally, according to the Georgia River Network, a local environmental advocacy group, the mine “would destroy the structural integrity of Trail Ridge, dewater wetlands in the swamp and induce drought, and put adjacent private property and timber lands at greater risk of wildfire.”

Conservation groups have long fought the proposed mine. “Hunters and anglers should be really concerned about the strip mine because it’s threatening hunting, angling, and other outdoor recreation opportunities in the Okefenokee,” Tiffany Turner, Director of Climate Solutions at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), tells Field & Stream. “There are three different hunting units in the Refuge, and it serves as a nursery and breeding ground for trophy sport fish. The refuge offers the opportunity to continue the traditions we love and want to pass down to our children.”

The Okefenokee is also one of the few remaining strongholds for black bears in the Peach State. In addition to potential wildlife impacts, Turner says that the Okefenokee Swamp stores the equivalent of 95 million tons of carbon dioxide. 

The GDEP is currently accepting public comments on the mine through April 9. The TRCP and its partners are in the process of drafting a public letter articulating their stance on the proposed mine. The organization is also planning a “call to action” to amplify the voices of concerned hunters and anglers.

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“People have described their experiences in the Okefenokee as holy,” says Turner, who visited the Okefenokee earlier this month. “That sounds hyperbolic, but it really is what you experience as a hunter and angler on the Refuge.”