Okefenokee seeking World Heritage Site designation

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Jun. 24—The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has launched a bid to have the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge designated a United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization World Heritage Site.

The international UNESCO designation recognizes natural and man-made sites that have "outstanding universal value."

If it earns the designation, the Okefenokee would be the 219th natural site in the world designated by the organization.

The United States has 23 UNESCO sites, 12 of which are natural sites and all national parks. Okefenokee would be the nation's first site entirely managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System and the first site representative of the subtropical habitats on the North American Coastal Plain.

If awarded, the designation would not translate into direct grants for the site and it does not alter the ownership of the lands in any way. UNESCO recognition will result in increased globally visibility, as well as growth in tourism and economic benefits for the region.

As many as 600,000 people visit the world-famous swamp annually.

Josh Marks, an Atlanta lawyer and a former Sierra Club campaign coordinator who helped defeat an effort by DuPont in the late 1990s to mine next to the swamp, praised the announcement.

"This is a fantastic development and long overdue.," Marks said. "The Okefenokee is a magical place unlike any other on the planet and deserves the highest level of international recognition that World Heritage Site listing will bring."

Marks said the enhanced visitation and resulting economic boost for Southeast Georgia should prove once and for all that sustainable development and stewardship of natural resources is the best direction to follow.

Marks has been critical of the recent attempt by Twin Pines Minerals to mine heavy minerals near the Okefenokee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed its decision to grant a mining permit, forcing Twin Pines to start the application process from the beginning.

"The timing of this announcement is especially appropriate, as it comes 25 years after then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Okefenokee and said 'no' to DuPont's similar mining scheme," Marks said.

"I was there that day, and it was one of the most impressive examples of leadership I've ever seen from a governmental official. Hopefully, current Interior Secretary Haaland will follow in Babbitt's footsteps, visit the Okefenokee this summer, state that World Heritage Site designation and mining are simply incompatible, and urge the Corps of Engineers and State of Georgia to deny all permits for TPM's project."

Alice Keyes, vice president of coastal conservation for the environmental group One Hundred Miles, welcomed the ongoing effort. She said she expects the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to formally apply for the designation and that it will be approved.

"We are very appreciative of the Fish & Wildlife Service efforts to secure the nomination of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to the UNESCO World Heritage List," Keyes said. "We are hopeful that the Department of Interior will authorize the nomination so that the refuge and our beloved swamp can be appropriately recognized for the natural and cultural wonder that is it — the wild heart of Georgia."

With Okefenokee nominated to the World Heritage List, Keyes said the welcome door is open to international eco-tourism travelers and sustainable development opportunities.

"We look forward to supporting the effort because with proper investment and planning the surrounding communities and rural Southeast Georgia will prosper," she said.

Kim Benarek, executive director of Okefenokee Swamp Park and Okefenokee Adventures, a concessionaire in the refuge, is a big supporter of the effort. She said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is preparing to move forward with the process.

"This is the next big step," she said. "This is getting a lot of attention. I think this is going to move quickly."