Georgia advocates rally for Okefenokee Swamp at Georgia State Capitol

Supporters of House Bill 71, the Okefenokee Protection Act, rally in the south wing of the Georgia Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2024. Republican Rep. Darlene Taylor, the bill's sponsor, stands at the podium. (Marisa Mecke/WABE)

On Monday, two mascot alligators, a collection of pitcher plants and several advocates for a bill to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from development lined the stairs of the Georgia Capitol’s south wing.

A coastal Georgia environmental advocacy group, 100 Miles, brought together the advocates for the nation’s largest blackwater swamp – some from the locales around the Okefenokee – to rally in favor of House Bill 71, the Okefenokee Protection Act.

“The majority of Georgians want us to pass this law,” said Republican Representative Darlene Taylor, the bill’s sponsor.

“My fellow legislators and I have heard from thousands of our constituents; the majority of the House of Representatives are co-sponsors of the Okefenokee Protection Act.”

The crowd also heard from Rev. Antwon Nixon of Folkston.

“To me, the Okefenokee Swamp is something like Eden – it’s hedged off a bit from society and needs our protection,” Nixon said, adding that he believes protecting spaces like the Okefenokee is a duty of his faith.

The religious leader visited the swamp throughout his childhood but hadn’t been back in many years as an adult. Even living in Folkston, he hadn’t heard about the potential mining operation until well into the permitting process.

Nevertheless, as soon as he was made aware, the reverend decided to get up to speed and join the community organizing to protect the swamp.

He even took a new job – with a pay cut – in order to have more flexible hours to devote more time to advocating for the Okefenokee.

And while the mine may bring in some jobs, he says that there’s more to be done with ecotourism that will sustain the community longer.

“The swamp isn’t going nowhere,” Nixon said. “That mine is going to leave at some point, and then what? So why not use what you have in your backyard.”

Catching up

The Okefenokee Swamp has been embroiled for several years due to a proposed titanium dioxide mine at the southeastern edge of the swamp by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals, LLC.

The company still needs two permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), one of which has concluded public comments and is awaiting a decision from the state agency. The agency has yet to indicate when that decision may be released.

The EPD issued a $20,000 fine to Twin Pines Minerals on Jan. 23 for improper exploratory drilling.

In addition to the payment, Twin Pines must send the EPD a report describing the status of the boreholes, whether they are still in use and if they were properly abandoned. If not, the agency asks Twin Pines to submit a plan to ensure the boreholes are properly handled.

At the Gold Dome

Despite its broad bipartisan support and over 90 co-sponsors, H.B. 71 was a swing and a miss last year, and has been waylaid in the House Natural Resources subcommittee.

In 2023, the bill ended the legislative session in the subcommittee. In order to become a bill, this subcommittee must have a hearing and agree to pass the bill, but the subcommittee chair – Republican representative Lynn Smith – has not indicated whether she’ll give it a hearing this year.

Meanwhile, several municipal and county governments around the state have passed resolutions stating their support for House Bill 71. Most recently, the City of Savannah and DeKalb County joined other municipalities such as Wayne County, Jesup, Waycross and Brunswick.