Why the Muscogee (Creek) Nation gets a say on the Okefenokee mine proposal

A proposal to mine for titanium near the Okefenokee Swamp has drawn push-back from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as well as from environmentalists and scientists. (Molly Samuel/WABE)

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last week that it was changing its stance on a controversial mine proposed near Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, the reason the agency gave was its failure, earlier on, to consult with the people the swamp used to belong to — the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Though they were forced out of Georgia close to two centuries ago, they stay engaged in issues here, said RaeLynn Butler, manager of the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which is located in Oklahoma.

“We are very active in the protection of sacred lands, cultural sites in our homelands,” she said. “Being a removed tribe, it is difficult, but the federal preservation laws require consultation with tribes who have interest in those areas.”

For the Muscogee people, that includes the Okefenokee Swamp, which was ceded in a treaty in 1814.

“We have long-standing ties there,” Butler said. “This is thought to have been one of the most blissful places on earth to the Muscogee people.”

When they found out about plans for a titanium mine near the swamp, proposed by a company called Twin Pines Minerals, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation tried to get involved.

In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April 2020, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation asked to be consulted on the project and cited comments it had submitted the year before requesting a full environmental review of the proposed mine.

But Twin Pines had scaled back the size of the mine, and the Trump Administration had scaled back the scope of the Clean Water Act. Instead of requiring that review, the Corps found that federal agencies no longer had oversight of the mine’s environmental impact.

The agency reversed that decision late last week. To move ahead, the mine will have to go through a lengthy federal review.

Butler credits local activists and Senator Jon Ossoff for the change. She also sees it as the Biden Administration following through on its word.

“The current administration, from day one, has encouraged federal agencies to have robust consultation with tribal nations,” she said.

The president of Twin Pines Minerals said he still plans to pursue permits for the mine.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, meanwhile, has endorsed a proposal to make the Okefenokee a UNESCO World Heritage site and is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate it as a traditional cultural property.