The Okefenokee Swamp. (Photo by Jay Blanton.)

By ALEX SCOTT, of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance.

Tupper Lake, N.Y., is a small village that’s located within the boundaries of Adirondack Park. In 2020, the population was 3,282. The town was always a hardscrabble little place with a long history of losses. The lumber industry dwindled, fires decimated part of the town, and the struggling citizens faced a bleak economic future. But what Tupper Lake did have were dark skies, rich with stars. 

Alex Scott of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance.

Eleven years ago, an idea was born. It started as a small grassroots project that captured the imaginations of the people. In time, overwhelming public support propelled it into reality: The Adirondack Sky Center and Observatory. 

Today, citizens, scientists, students, international tourists, devoted stargazers, and a multitude of organizations enjoy the Observatory’s extensive range of events and programs, and the people of Tupper Lake benefit enormously from the tourism generated by what is now one of the top 22 observatories in America. 

Meanwhile, 260 miles to the north, in southern Quebec, Canada, Mont-Mégantic rises to a modest height of 3,615 feet. It’s not a terribly imposing mountain, but it is absolutely extraordinary because its summit is home to The Mont Mégantic Observatory.

The creation of the Observatory led to the establishment of the world’s first International Dark-Sky Association preserve. Today, with its Interactive Visitor Centre, numerous public telescopes, classes, festivals, tours, guided camping experiences, educational “AstroLabs” and more, Mont Mégantic is a stellar example of a completely sustainable economic driver for an entire region. 

These are just two examples of what can be achieved. 

Now let’s travel 1,184 miles south. Deep in the heart of South Georgia sleeps a 438,000-acre behemoth — the Okefenokee Swamp. The Swamp is designated as a National Natural Landmark, cited as a Wetland of International Importance (RAMSAR), and is shortlisted as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also an official International Dark Sky Park. 

The Okefenokee has been much in the news of late as yet another mining company seeks to gouge vast tracts of earth from Trail Ridge, the rim of the great bowl of the Swamp. 

So what if, instead of plundering the soil for private profit, we began exploring connections between the Okefenokee’s earthly beauty and the wealth of stars above? What if we built an observatory, educational activities for adults and children, scientific outposts, and visitor experience programs? What if, instead of destroying nature for corporate gain, we created a tourist destination that would financially benefit nearby communities for decades to come; a destination that could connect students with scientific initiatives, career opportunities, and nature experiences while contributing to the wellbeing of the region?  

According to Kim Bednarek, the Executive Director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a nonprofit partner to the state of Georgia and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, this vision is absolutely attainable: “The Okefenokee Experience in Southeast Georgia would include a Dark Sky Observatory, adjacent to Stephen C. Foster State Park, (an International Dark Sky Park), inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. 

National and State public lands are recognizing that their domains offer not just wildernesses and vistas to be explored during the day but also offer the added value of awe-inspiring nighttime skies. Creating interactive and immersive opportunities for the public to learn about the night skies of the Okefenokee Swamp will highlight how conservation, education, and economic development work together to ensure that our unique natural wonderlands are preserved and restored for future generations.” 

U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff has stated that he, too, envisions an Okefenokee experience that would include a cultural history museum and observatory: “This is a really important natural resource for our state, and economic opportunity as a tourist destination.” 

Currently, 201 International Dark Sky parks throughout the world are creating observatories, educational connections, collaborative programs, and liaisons with scientific communities. Forbes Magazine asks “Is Astrotourism the next big thing?” and the answer is, resoundingly, “yes.” 

The opportunities are limitless — and the Okefenokee Swamp is uniquely positioned to become one of the brightest stars in the global Dark Sky constellation.  

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to uplift and amplify the diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email Editor Derek Prall to discuss the specifics.

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