The Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo from Georgia River Network.)

The Georgia Rivers Gala brought together dozens of stewards for Georgia’s rivers, with a clear position on one of Georgia’s most precious natural resources.

On Friday Sept. 8 The Georgia River Network celebrated a quarter-century of protecting the state’s rivers and waterways. The event saw guests from Sen. Jon Ossoff to Muscogee (Creek) Nation Chief David Hill.

At the center of attention was an ongoing legal battle between conservationists who want to preserve the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia and Twin Pines Minerals, a mining project specializing in titanium and zirconium, which is proposing a site near the swamp that environmentalists say could have devastating impacts. 

The focus on the Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee Swamp is “the largest blackwater wetland ecosystem in North America, and the least disturbed freshwater ecosystem on the Atlantic Coastal Plain” according to the River Basin Center from the University of Georgia. The River Basin also says that 93 percent of the swamp is protected under the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR). 

A paddler hold a sign that reads: “Protect the Okefenokee!”. (Photo from Georgia River Network.)

In January of this year, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) released the Draft Mining Land Use Plan for Twin Pines Minerals.  The plan was quickly met with concerns from environmentalists and scientists alike who said such a project could harm the natural resource.

The following month, a team of 11 hydrologists wrote that the gauge that the proposed mining site is being based on is, “inappropriate for direct analysis of how consumptive groundwater withdrawals by the mine will affect the hydrology of the swamp.” The team specifically cited an incorrect usage of a USGS gage on the St. Mary’s River near Macclenny, Fla, instead of a gage on the river near Moniac, GA which would give more accurate assessments of the effects of the proposed project. A USGS gage is an instrument used to measure stream flow in waterways.

This was followed by a letter in March 2023, when Georgia Conservancy wrote to the Georgia EPD requesting that they reject Twin Pines Minerals mining land use plans and surface mining permit. The letter named three natural sources — Trail Ridge, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and St. Mary’s River — as being predicted to suffer negative effects from this mining project. They also cited hydrologic impacts, sand ridge hydrologic barrier impacts, Florida aquifer impacts, water level and quality monitoring mitigation and wildlife impacts as the potential negative impacts from the project. 

As of August, a decision has yet to be made by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division  on the permitting of mining by Twin Pines Minerals or the initial Draft Mining Land Use Plan, which can be found on Georgia EPD’s website.

Leaders call to protect the resource 

Sen. Ossoff delivered remarks praising the Georgia River Network and its efforts to protect Georgia waterways. He also sent a clear message: Leave the Okefenokee alone.

“I call upon the state of Georgia to reject strip mining near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge,” Ossoff said. “This is a unique natural resource in the world; a black water swamp with this kind of biodiversity this dense, a carbon sink so valuable, a site for recreation and outdoor education and tourism. It is something to keep as a sacred place as the Muscogee Creek [Peoples] kept it for thousands of years.” 

While the swamp means much for ecosystem health and wildlife, recreation and everything in between to most, the connection is even more unique for the Muscogee Peoples who were the original riverkeepers.

Muscogee Chief David Hill delivered remarks, describing his sense of responsibility, both as chief and a steward of the Earth, to protect the waterways held sacred to his nation — even after being forcibly removed from them.

“That’s one of the things we’ll have so many residents ask us, ‘Why did y’all leave such a beautiful place?’ Not knowing the history — we weren’t asked to leave, we were forced to leave,” said Hill with pain in his voice. 

Though now based in Oklahoma, Hill described the swamp, like many waterways, holding a special place in the history of the Muscogee people. Meaningful acknowledgement of this past will need to go further than just land acknowledgements, he said, the collaboration between him and the Georgia River Network has been key in fulfilling this.

“There’s more to it. It’s not just declaring that this was originally Muscogee Creek Nation,” said Hill, who added  he looks forward to continued meaningful engagement with the network.

It should be noted that Twin Pines Minerals has not yet consulted with the Muscogee Creek Nation, despite federal laws that require consultation with displaced tribes who used to call these places home. 

The Muscogee Creek Nation first requested to be consulted on the project in 2020, but has received little to no engagement — made more complicated by the fact of changing authorities with jurisdiction due to shifting Trump and Biden administrations and consequently, policies. 

Out on the water

While the fight for the Okefenokee rages on, the gala was still able to celebrate 25 years of protecting other waterways in Georgia and getting people engaged with the beauty around them.

Keith Parsons and Dubose Porter, co-founders of the Georgia River Network project Paddle Georgia, said getting people out on the water so they can see the natural beauty and become stewards themselves drives the work that they do.

“We created Paddle Georgia, which gets hundreds of people on all the Georgia rivers to see why water quality is so important,” Porter said.

Parsons says the idea was born out of another conservation effort.

“What really inspired us was the Turner Foundation started the Chattahochee RIver Keeper, and they were really successful. So we got the idea that we need to replicate this and move it to a statewide program,” Parsons said. “The original focus of the Georgia River Network was to motivate people throughout the state in all the different water basins — educate them, bring them along, enable them to start advocacy groups within their own river systems.”

Bonny Putney, dubbed “The Champion of All Things Water” in 2014 by the Lake Lanier Association, has been on every Paddle Georgia trip.

“I live up on Lake Lanier, which is right in my backyard, and I’ve been protecting that since I moved here in the early 80s,” Putney said.

Putney said she’s elated to see the growing support for the Okefenokee and other Georgia water systems, and people seeing sites you can’t see any other way besides kayaking.

She hopes more people will join her and the riverkeepers on their trips to connect with nature and understand the importance of protecting waterways beyond just their aesthetic value.

“Water is in all of us. Water is the most important thing that is on this Earth. Please help protect whatever waterway you are near, whether it be a little creek, stream, river, lake or the ocean,” Putney said. “Protect it the best you can because without it, we have nothing.”

Photos below from Kelly Jordan:

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