Atlanta high schooler learns to love the swamp
By Zain Khemani, student at The New School
Every year, the Okefenokee Swamp receives more than 600,000 visits from Georgia and beyond – all from people looking to experience the wonders of the Swamp. Those tourists prop up local businesses and keep a steady flow of income for the locals. But the Okefenokee is far more than just a tourist destination. It’s a sanctuary for endangered species, a home and way of life for its residents, and, currently, an environmental battleground.
Twin Pines Minerals is an Alabama-based mining company. In 2019, they applied for a permit that would give them the rights to mine titanium dioxide in Trail Ride, which is the eastern border of the Okefenokee Swamp. At its closest point, the mine will be less than 3 miles from the edge of the swamp.
None of these facts were known to me when, sometime in early December 2022, I discovered that my entire high school, The New School in Atlanta, would be taking a trip down to the Stephen C. Foster State Park near the heart of the Okefenokee in February 2023. To say that I’m not outdoorsy by nature would be a wild understatement, but the idea of a school trip sounded fun.
Part of the preparation was showing us Sacred Waters, a documentary produced by the Okefenokee Protection Alliance about the area’s natural beauty, and the negative effects of the mining plan.
A few weeks after watching the documentary, some other students and I went to the Georgia State Capitol for Okefenokee Day. There, we heard a half dozen different descriptions about what would happen to the swamp water if the mining went through, ranging from complete destruction to nothing at all. I brought this up to a local forester who was there for the event, and he said something that stuck with me. “Why risk it?” If we don’t know what will happen, why would we risk the swamp to mine for a reasonably common mineral? I’m not a hydrologist; if the people who studied these issues their entire lives say that it comes with real risk, then I trust them. It is not worth risking the survival of a Georgia landmark to line an Alabama-based company’s pockets.
At this point, though, I had no personal stake in the Okefenokee’s well-being. I cared what happened to it, but not because I had any connection to the swamp; it was because other people did. All that changed in February when I finally got to visit. I’d read countless anecdotes about the beauty of the Okefenokee, but you only understand once you go yourself. It was serene. I am not a nature fanatic, but that first night we went stargazing, and I saw the real sky for the first time, I understood the appeal. It was genuinely beautiful. No problems from home followed me there; it was the least stressed I’ve been in years—no thoughts about college, about jobs or about school, just nature in its purest form. I know firsthand that no description can supplement the real thing, so I highly encourage everyone who can make the trip down. It’s worth it.
As beautiful as it was, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the people who I had the chance to meet. While visiting, I had the unique opportunity to interview two residents who lived in and around the swamp: Mrs. Deborah Reed and Pastor Antwon Nixon. I highly recommend watching both interviews. More than anything else I’ve heard or seen about the Okefenokee, their words stuck with me. I could speak for hours about everything we discussed during those conversations, but one idea in particular that Pastor Antwon voiced stuck out to me:
“You don’t see anyone trying to set up a mine in the Grand Canyon, or in the Smoky Mountains or Yellowstone National Park. Why? Because they said it’s too valuable. So our job is to make this place as valuable as these other places.”
Laws and officials may physically protect these parks, but those laws are created because people value what those locations bring to the community and the world. No land is innately valuable or worthless; it’s all about how we perceive it, and the Okefenokee deserves the same respect we give these other equally beautiful locations.
By the final day of my trip, the value of the Okefenokee was clear as day to me. I already knew how vital the swamp was to the area’s ecosystem, and I’d heard a million times how beautiful it was (even if it doesn’t truly click till you visit), but the love I felt for the community and individuals in the Okefenokee surprised me. The Okefenokee is full of people who’ve lived there for generations and see the swamp as a way of life, one they hope to pass down.
The fight to protect the Okefenokee Swamp has yet to be resolved as of writing this. The permit for the mining itself is currently under review by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). If the (EPD) grants Twin Pines Minerals the right to mine next door to the swamp, it tells the world that Georgia doesn’t respect the Okefenokee. As a native Georgian, that’s not how I want people to think about our state. Luckily, I’m not alone in that feeling. Countless residents from all over Georgia have already spoken out in public comment sections, posted online about their experiences with the Okefenokee; and, most importantly, voted with their dollar by visiting it themselves.
If you want to get involved in some way, I highly recommend going to https://protectokefenokee.org/ and getting involved in some way. This isn’t some global issue that we have no chance of changing. This is happening right now, and on a small enough scale where you can make a difference.
I really loved the conviction you now have and I can feel your love for our beloved Okefenokee in your words.
Thank you very much for bringing the attention to the great Okefenokee. I’m 65 yrs old and I’ve loved it since my first job as a guide in the Okefenokee at 16 yrs old.
I will do and have spread the word about the desperate situation Okefenokee is in with the possible mining near trail ridge. I’ll share your Sara Report in The Great Okefenokee Swamp Facebook group. Is that okay with you?
I am an Okefenokee fan also, and I did get the opportunity to comment on the proposed mine. I agree, why take the chance? You would love fishing at Stephen C Foster State Park and the Suwanee River Sill. Let’s keep this shared resource wild and beautiful! (Great article btw)
Really nice article. I just got back from the Okefenokee and now I, too, understand more than ever how special this land is. Thank you for spreading awareness.
I’ve had the privilege of living near, and, visiting, camping and fishing t he Swamp my entire life
Also, a descendant of the Lee family buried on Billy’s Island, I hold the Swamp and it’s habitat in high regard. I appreciate the folks that voicing their opinions. Let’s all hope the the Georgia politicians are also wanting to protect The Okefenokee Swamp. And, all it’s rich history and our environment….
It is remarkable how the New School went all in on the mining threat to the Okefenokee. They took the entire school to the Stephen Foster state park for a two-day camping trip. The seniors paddled out to an island in the Swamp for the night, observed countless alligators from their canoes, and heard barred owls hooting at dusk. Several of the students had never been camping before and remarked that the experience has changed their lives. Students interviewed members of the Folkston community. One told of how during segregation, the Swamp was the only place black people could go to escape the racism that surrounded them. Other students pressed Georgia lawmakers at the Capitol to explain why the General Assembly was not doing more to protect this special place. Still other students wrote comment letters to the Environmental Protection Division, and spoke up at hearings on the pending application for the mining permit. In short, they identified a problem and they engaged to address that problem. They wanted to make a difference and they continue to do so. If I had known about the New School when my children were going through school, we would have applied. Zane, the author of this article, is a seasoned communicator in both film and print and is but a rising senior. He is evidence that the New School is doing well with the students entrusted to their care.
Thank you for the wonderful article on the Okefenokee. Many people have the preconceived notion that the Okefenokee is nothing more than a mud pit with alligators and plenty of mosquitoes. But if only they could see and hear what you felt and many others, they’d change their tune. Great job and thank you for your heartfelt and very honest words.
Wonderful article! I hope other people visit the Okefenokee to feel the same connection that you described.
Thank you for this touching and powerful article, Zain. Voices like yours ring truest in this battle: your generation will be the one to grieve the loss of this magical place…or celebrate and protect it through the decades to come. I urge people to visit the Okefenokee Protection Alliance website (within the article) and https://www.facebook.com/protectokefenokee to learn more about this issue.
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