Dear Editor,

We often take for granted things that are right in our backyard. We tend to travel to well-known attractions outside of our everyday sphere. Not everyone has a place as extraordinary as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) so close to home. You may have gone fishing, taken a school field trip, or attended a special event at the Refuge. We know this place stands out as one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders, the largest national wildlife refuge and the third largest National Wilderness Area east of the Mississippi River, and is often highlighted as the largest blackwater swamp in the United States. Amazingly, the Refuge’s one-of-a-kind accolades go beyond these, making it exceptional on the North American Coastal Plain (NACP) as well as within the subtropical climate zone worldwide.

The Okefenokee Swamp, the heart the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and southeast Georgia, has persisted with its original footprint despite attempts to drain it when wetlands weren’t valued. It is the largest, unfragmented, naturally driven freshwater wetland remaining on the NACP and is remarkable on a global scale. Other wetlands on the North American Coastal Plain and in the subtropical climate zone haven’t been so lucky, as these areas are some of the most populated zones of the world, where wetlands have been drained and channelized and agriculture and development has replaced natural habitats.

Okefenokee NWR’s high degree of naturalness and outstanding representation of the regional biodiversity retains the key physical and biological elements that are essential for long-term ecological functioning. Many of the plant species are representative of the southeastern US and cannot be found any place else in the world. Fire dependent ecosystems like the Okefenokee NWR are globally common but increasingly deteriorating due to fire exclusion. One only needs to look at Google Earth to see the expanse of the Okefenokee NWR, but just as impressive is the satellite night view of an area devoid of light pollution. The magnitude and superb integrity of this inland oasis and headwater wetland is globally rare and is critically important as it connects to numerous natural and conservation managed lands and waterways, creating a corridor from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. All these factors contribute to the Okefenokee NWR’s nomination for World Heritage site status.

The US Fish Wildlife Service has managed this land as a National Wildlife Refuge for the past 85 years, allowing it to recover from past exploitation to resemble and function as a pristine environment. Designated as a National Wilderness Area, natural forces prevail. The refuge strives to ensure the integrity of the ecological system in support of native fauna and flora and the ecological services that support the health and well-being of surrounding communities. In addition, visiting this extraordinary place will certainly enrich your spirit.

Sara Aicher

Folkston, Georgia