Ossoff, Carter push for Okefenokee UNESCO listing

A group of visitors return to Stephen C. Foster State Park after an overnight camping trip on the Red Trail in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on April 6, 2022, in Fargo, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Members of Georgia’s congressional delegation – from both sides of the aisle – are pushing to get the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Senator Jon Ossoff and Congressman Buddy Carter, who represents the coast, are calling on the Interior Department to nominate the Okefenokee for World Heritage Site status. That’s a key step in getting UNESCO to consider it.

In a letter to Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz, they called the Okefenokee “a national treasure,” citing the habitat it provides for more than a thousand species, the carbon storage benefits of the swamp’s peatlands and its cultural importance to the Muscogee Creek Nation.

“The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has consistently been considered and evaluated as ecologically and culturally significant and clearly meets the criteria for a World Heritage Site nomination,” the letter said.

The letter is also signed by Senator Raphael Warnock and Representatives Sanford Bishop, Hank Johnson, Lucy McBath, David Scott and Nikema Williams, all Democrats. 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are places deemed to be culturally, historically or scientifically significant. Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks are on the list, as are human structures like the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge.

The Okefenokee was placed on the U.S. tentative list for UNESCO recognition in 2008.

The push to nominate the swamp comes as a mining company is trying to get permission to mine for heavy minerals nearby, which advocates say could permanently harm the swamp. Opponents of the mine often cite the swamp’s spot on the tentative list as evidence of its importance. 

The state Environmental Protection Division is currently accepting public comment on the land use permit for the proposed mine. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban future mining near the Okefenokee, including expansions of the current proposed mine.

UNESCO designation does not provide protection or prevent development, but it would “encourage environmental protection” according to the letter.

“[UNESCO listing] would support efforts to protect and preserve the Refuge’s natural and cultural resources and further important scientific exploration and analysis,” the letter said. “The nomination would also attract tourism and benefit the local and recreational economy and communities.”

The federal Interior Department has weighed in on the mine and the Okefenokee’s importance. In a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her department had a “profound interest” in protecting the swamp and urged the state to block the project.