By Lauri deGaris
The Okefenokee Swamp is a unique freshwater ecosystem providing nearly a half-million acres of refuge for nature and nature lovers alike. The Okefenokee Swamp gives birth to the St. Marys River. And, what happens to the St. Marys River affects all Nassau County residents. Many folks are commenting on the Twin Pines mining operation proposed so close to the great black water refuge. All this recent commentary prompted me to reflect on historical activities associated with the Okefenokee.
For thousands of years, Indigenous cultures protected and nurtured the resources of the Okefenokee Swamp. They knew, for future generations to survive in any area, they needed to live in balance with nature. All natural resources were used in a sustainable way allowing the circle of life to thrive throughout the Okefenokee Swamp region.
The Okefenokee Swamp produces “black water,” which looks like tea. Organic plant material decomposing in the swamp brews under sunlight releasing tannins that color the water. The “black water” flows to the Atlantic Ocean passing through Cumberland Sound, just north of Amelia Island. This water was found to be healthful and pure, and lasted a long time in wood barrels used by earlier mariners.
Old sailing vessels called “tramps” would come hundreds of miles off their course for St. Marys River water. Vessels that docked in the port city of Fernandina could procure barrels of “swamp water” for voyages. Many years later, the city of Jacksonville proposed a 40-mile pipeline be constructed from the Okefenokee Swamp to the city for drinking water. Natural, pure water from the Okefenokee Swamp is highly valuable and has been sought after for centuries.
Old-growth cypress and pine trees were found in abundance before the colonization of this region. Later, railroads were introduced and great stands of trees were extracted, milled and shipped all over the country. For centuries, pine trees were “boxed” to gather sap. Boxing required massive cuts to create a collection “box” at the base of a living tree. The massive cuts caused insect, fire and wind damage, then destroyed the tree. Later, the introduction of metal cups to collect sap replaced boxing and preserved the tree. Once collected, pine tree sap was distilled into turpentine.
Efforts to drain the Okefenokee Swamp have been proposed on numerous occasions. Many thought the rich organic soil beneath the swamp could be used for growing cotton and tobacco once the water was removed. Also, peat and moss mining operations were conducted along the edge of the swamp.
Another proposed use of the Okefenokee included creating a barge canal across the swamp. The canal would connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Although some canal digging was done in the Okefenokee Swamp, efforts ended when the Ocklawaha River in Florida was determined to be a better choice for the project. Concerned citizens and scientists finally convinced politicians that the Floridan aquifer could be irreparably harmed by the project. President Nixon recognized the drinking water supply for future generations was at risk and ended the Cross Florida Barge Canal project before its completion. Over 100 years of planning and millions of dollars were spent on the canal idea. Fortunately, the Okefenokee Swamp was spared from this folly.
By the early 1900s, many people were asking, “What do you do with a logged-out swamp?” One group proposed a scenic highway be built across the swamp from Waycross to Lake City. Other groups were uniting for the preservation of the swamp as a biological refuge. The Okefenokee Society was created in 1918 with this vision in mind. Support was mixed but by the 1930s a movement to create national forest reserves, parks and wildlife refuges stimulated renewed interest in the preservation of Okefenokee Swamp. In 1936, a boundary survey was conducted and the Hebard Lumber Co. was offered $436,469.07 for almost 300,000 acres in the Okefenokee Swamp by the U.S. government. President Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on March 30, 1937.
The Okefenokee Swamp became popular as a recreation area and wildlife refuge. National recognition of the swamp was achieved when the movie “Swamp Water” was produced in 1941. Concessions were awarded for public recreational opportunities like boating, fishing, and camping in the swamp. Stephen Foster State Park was opened to the public in 1954 by the State of Georgia. Today, many recreational opportunities exist around the entire rim of the Okefenokee supporting over 700 jobs directly related to eco-tourism in the swamp.
Once the swamp was a recognized wildlife refuge, biologists began to study the Okefenokee and document their findings. Geologists, ecologists, hydrologists, geomorphologists, and many other researchers conducted an array of studies to better understand the swamp. They discovered what Indigenous people have known for thousands of years. The Okefenokee Swamp is a beautiful, unique place that supports an abundance of wildlife. It is worthy of preserving for future generations.
The Okefenokee Swamp is an international treasure. People from all over the world visit the swamp. It has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. The swamp has been nominated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is one of the seven wonders of the state of Georgia.
Many people profess their love for the Okefenokee Swamp; it has deep emotional meaning for them. They comment about visiting the swamp as a child and the fond memories they have from this experience. They are eager to share the same experience with their children.
Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge resources belong to everyone. Any operation that may impact these resources in a potentially harmful way should be avoided. Naturalist John Muir reminds us that we all need places in nature untouched by the hand of man. The great black water of the Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge is one such place.
Lauri deGaris is a historian, naturalist, artist and native Floridian who has lived on Amelia Island for more than 30 years. We are pleased to announce that she has joined the Fernandina Observer team.