NASHVILLE — I have a dim memory of being taken on a boat ride in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge when I was 4 or 5. I remember tea-dark water lapping at the boat, a white bird on stilt legs and a drifting log that startled me by turning into an alligator. That’s it. Years later, I had to consult my brother to be sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing up out of nothing but a word-besotted child’s delight in the swamp’s name.
Last fall, in a moving essay for The Bitter Southerner, the writer Janisse Ray called the Okefenokee “a gigantic, ethereal, god-touched swamp in southeast Georgia that’s like no other place on earth.” This is the kind of ecstatic language the refuge inevitably inspires. Some 700,000 people visit it each year, and I have always intended to return. Now I’m worried I won’t ever have the chance.
Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama-based mining company, has applied to build a strip mine less than three miles from the wildlife refuge. The mining operation would target a geological formation called Trail Ridge, a raised area of land on the eastern border of the swamp. During prehistoric times, Trail Ridge was a barrier island. Today the ocean is some 45 miles away, and Trail Ridge functions as a low earthen dam that holds the Okefenokee in place. “Trail Ridge is not only ecologically important in and of itself,” notes the Georgia Conservancy, “but also serves as scaffolding for the health of the Okefenokee.”
But Trail Ridge contains titanium dioxide. Twin Pines proposes to extract the mineral by peeling off the topsoil, digging out the sand pits, separating the sand containing titanium and then returning the mineral-free sand to its approximate original location.
It might sound like a decent plan if you’ve never seen what happens when a coal company practices mountaintop removal mining, which also works according to a destroy-extract-replace model. Strip mines dramatically alter the environment. Recreating ancient ecosystems afterward isn’t possible.
And as the Okefenokee Protection Alliance points out, risking this wildlife refuge just isn’t necessary. Titanium dioxide isn’t hard to find elsewhere, and procuring it is not exactly an issue of national security: “Though titanium is used in everything from surgical tools to military equipment, mineral commodity experts expect the minerals that might be obtained here to be used for more pedestrian purposes — primarily as a pigment for coloring things white like paint, plastic and even toothpaste.”
On Jan. 19, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division opened a period of public comment about the company’s draft plan. It’s not necessary to live in Georgia to comment.
The Okefenokee is one of the great natural wonders of this country. Its 438,000 acres — nearly 700 square miles — spill over the Florida line to make up the largest ecologically intact blackwater swamp we have. Its diverse ecosystems include marsh, upland forest, prairie, cypress swamp and an intricate labyrinth of waterways.
The refuge supports 620 plant species and provides habitat for an immense range of wildlife: at least 50 mammal species, including black bears, otters and bobcats; 234 species of birds; 64 species of reptiles (including, of course, alligators); and 37 species of amphibians, the most vulnerable wildlife class there is. Several of the plants and creatures in the Okefenokee are rare or in trouble.
It’s also important to note that wetlands sequester immense amounts of carbon. Over time, waterlogged plants that don’t completely decompose will compact beneath the water to form peat. Across the globe, peatlands