A Reprieve for the Okefenokee Swamp?
By David R. Osier
Loftin recalls: "The water was about 95 degrees and I hit this patch that was about 70 degrees. It was about 10 feet in diameter and my assumption is that it was water coming from underneath [the peat]."
The key word here is "assumption," because no one really knows exactly how the Okefenokee's underground plumbing works. A sure way to find out would be to dredge a 50-foot deep titanium strip mine for 50 years along Trail Ridge, the ancient barrier island that impounds the swamp's eastern edge. By then, of course, it might be too late. Yet this was exactly what E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., the chemical giant, proposed to do when it began assembling parcels and mineral rights on Trail Ridge in 1991. And despite the fact that the company knew as much as anybody else about the swamp's hydrogeology which is to say, very little it insisted the mine would have no impact on the Okefenokee's natural functions, or at least no "significant" impact.
It was probably inevitable that such corporate arrogance would provoke an environmental war, which is exactly what happened in 1996. But environmental wars seldom turn out the way this one did, and although the settlement essentially came down to a buyout of DuPont's mining interests that may take years to complete, the company says it is prepared to be patient.
Does this mean the Okefenokee is safe again? Only time will tell. It is safe to say that DuPont's attitude has evolved considerably over the past three years. It still thinks it could have strip-mined Trail Ridge without harming the swamp, but the company clearly is proud to have led the settlement process, so much so that it is touting the attributes of collaboration over confrontation. As DuPont spokesman Rick Straitman told me in November, "We believe it will serve as a model for the solution of future environmental disputes."
The first time I saw the Okefenokee was from the air. It was the summer of 1990, at the height of a prolonged drought. Fires were breaking out in remote areas, and I had hitched a ride on a fire patrol helicopter leased by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. As we lifted off to roughly 600 feet, arrayed before me was a vast muted watercolor of blues and greens and reddish-browns stretching across southeast Georgia from horizon to horizon. Then, as we glided across a monotonous blur of cypress heads, alligator holes and aquatic prairies, I began to feel mesmerized, as if I were suspended in time. There was nothing here, save the swamp itself. No houses. No bridges. No roads. No electric lines. Not even jeep trails so common elsewhere in the flatwoods of the region. It was so big I couldn't tell where it ended.
It is so wild no one has explored it all, except from the air. Most of it has never been surveyed, though it has been 500 years since the European occupation of the Eastern Seaboard.
It harbors a rich diversity of flora and fauna, from rare insect-eating pitcher plants, delicate swamp iris, water lilies, cypress and live oaks to great blue herons, osprey, anhingas, sandhill cranes, great egrets, white ibises, red-tailed hawks, barred owls, water moccasins, river otters and bobcats. It is among the last sanctuaries of even more precious species, among them the black bear, gopher tortoise, indigo snake, red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork and bald eagle. Perhaps its most famous denizen is the alligator; once endangered, it now flourishes.
This is the Okefenokee's power, and more amazing when you realize that within 40 miles are one million people along the Atlantic coast from Brunswick, Ga., to Jacksonville, Fla. No other wetland wilderness in North America that is so big, and remains so intact, is so close to such a large human population.
The fact the Okefenokee exists at all, in its present condition, is one of the great ironies in our nation's history of environmental protection. Timber companies took less than 40 years, from the late 1890s to the mid-1930s, to rob the Okefenokee of its thousand-year-old cypress and virgin pine. By 1937 an estimated 93 percent of the aboriginal forests were gone, and the Okefenokee's owners were more than happy to take the government's offer of $460,000 for what was largely a denuded landscape of stumps and logging debris.
The rapacity with which the loggers exploited the Okefenokee evokes a compelling analogy to what is taking place today in the rain forests of South America and Asia. We cannot yet know the full impact of the eradication of the world's rain forests; scientists do tell us the destruction is likely permanent. The Okefenokee, at least, is still here. A precious few stands of towering, millennial cypress in remote areas escaped the crosscut saws, and the rest appears to be recovering so well only knowledgeable eyes can spot the scars. The Okefenokee is rare in this regard among such wild places altered by man. The resiliency of nature is a powerful force, and the Okefenokee offers further confirmation. Indeed, it is part of the allure for the thousands of canoeists and day visitors who come here every year seeking the solitude that is getting more difficult to find in a world of dwindling wilderness.
Trail Ridge, averaging 30 feet higher than the swamp basin, lies just beyond the refuge's boundary (there are no fences), but scientists consider it part of the swamp's ecosystem; bears, for example, range freely between the swamp and the ridge looking for food.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence that some kind of "groundwater exchange," as Loftin puts it, takes place between the sandy pine ridge and the wetlands, but nobody knows that for sure. The ridge is a relict barrier island, formed 250,000 years ago when the coast was 30 to 70 miles farther inland during a succession of the Pleistocene ice ages. It runs from around Stark, Fla., to Jesup, Ga., with occasional breaches by the Satilla and St. Mary's rivers. In other words, it is an ancient beach. Its components are the same as the sandy shores of the Golden Isles, which is to say, the ancient peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, eroded by wind and rain, washed to the Atlantic by mighty rivers, and returned by waves and tides.
The Okefenokee basin essentially is a giant bowl of clay perched atop the limestone aquifer 120 feet above sea level behind Trail Ridge, which is only 30 feet higher. Scientists can't agree on how this depression formed. They do know that 20,000 years ago it didn't exist. It may have been an estuary of several rivers, much like the salt marshes on today's coast. Or it could have been a saltwater lagoon left by the receding ocean at the beginning of the current Holocene epoch.
Peat began accumulating about 7,000 years ago, gathering dead plants, coalescing, evolving, building, until a layer had formed 4 to 8 feet deep, and in some places 20 feet. Peat is everything to the Okefenokee. It is what gives the water its tea-stained hue, from the tannin yielded by the decomposing verdure, only apparently black on the surface, an illusion of perspective. And it is the peat bog prairies that give us the Okefenokee's legendary name, bestowed by the Creeks, who were here when surveyor Samuel Savery recorded it on a map in the 1760s. The word is a corruption of ikan-finoka, or yakni finoke, meaning "quivering earth." And if you have the rare fortune to walk on one of these bogs of legend, you will find that the earth does indeed quiver, a bit like fruit gelatin quivers in a bowl.
It is actually more a lake than a swamp, which connotes a dank, stagnant place. The Okefenokee is never that. Its water is always moving, imperceptibly, toward two great rivers, the well-sung Suwannee in its northern reaches heading to the Gulf of Mexico, the St. Marys in the south. So dearly does the Okefenokee hold its hydrological secrets that no one has yet located the watershed, even with Landsat images. I have seen places where water appears to flow toward both rivers at once.
The Okefenokee gets most of its water from rain, about 70 percent, according to bio-hydrologist Cynthia Loftin. Scientists know most of the remainder comes from small streams, or "branches," all around the swamp, including Trail Ridge, but largely in the northwestern corner. Standard thinking is the swamp's clay bowl is watertight.
But, as Loftin may have discovered during her walk through Chesser Prairie, some water must come from springs. Explorers also found springs in Honey Island Prairie and Blackjack Lake. I have visited one spring on Floyds Island deep in the interior. The refuge's first manager, John Hopkins (who surveyed the swamp for the Hebard Lumber Co. back in 1910 or so), reported finding "many springs" that "keep the water sweet and healthy." How many? Who knows? In the northeastern corner, adjacent to Trail Ridge, Loftin found water levels remain higher even during drought. Is the area fed by springs? "Nobody knows," she said. Her study looked only at surface water.
We know there are springs on Trail Ridge. When the Suwannee Canal Co. attempted to drain the swamp a century ago, workers digging into the ridge encountered springs at 32 feet, which forced additional expense and contributed to the enterprise's ultimate demise. Even DuPont's director of environmental affairs for the mining project, Jon Samborski, admitted: "Certainly Trail Ridge has some kind of contribution to the water budget of the Okefenokee." But in the company's view, it's insignificant.
Trail Ridge consists of highly stratified soil that has been compared to a parfait. Among the layers are hardpans of clay. Sidney Bacchus, who conducted doctoral research in ecology at UGA, was quoted in The Okefenokee Swamp, a commemorative magazine published by the Georgia Wildlife Federation, as saying that when surface water seeps into Trail Ridge and hits the hardpans, it slows down, and instead of percolating to the Floridan Aquifer, it flows laterally into the swamp. DuPont's mine would have cut deep into the hardpan and mixed it with other types of soil, after which the land would be replanted in pines.
"DuPont will be able to regain the approximate contours of what was there before," Bacchus told writer Pamela Holliday, "but they will have homogenized the clay layers, they won't exist anymore. We don't know how long it will take to reform the clay."
It is easy to understand what was at stake for both sides in the mining dispute. I first learned of DuPont's mining plans in August 1993 when a friend in Folkston called, agitated about a rumor he'd just heard. The refuge's eastern entrance is 9 miles south of Folkston, and for many of its visitors, the town of 2,500 residents is a jumping-off point. Tourism is one of only two industries in Folkston and Charlton County worth mentioning the other is timber and my friend, whose business caters to eco-tourists, was concerned that a strip mine so close to the refuge would hurt his livelihood.
I soon learned that DuPont had acquired 16,000 acres of commercial timberland on Trail Ridge adjacent to the refuge from Union Camp Corp. expecting to begin operations in about 10 years. I reported the essentials for a weekly political newsletter, but no one else took notice until July 1996 when stories began appearing in newspapers around the country and on CNN, publicity generated largely by the Georgia Sierra Club. By then DuPont had leased the mineral rights on another 23,000 acres next to the refuge, for 39,000 acres in all, and had announced plans to begin applying for mining and wetlands permits, with operations to commence in 2002.
As DuPont's Straitman told me in November, "The DuPont people involved in developing [the] mining proposal underestimated the emotional reaction to the plan. And once it became public, the company did not anticipate the breadth of organized opposition to it." Everyone from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Georgia Gov. Zell Miller to a host of conservation groups and even some DuPont stockholders weighed in on the side of environmental common sense, telling the company, in essence, to get the hell out.
Babbitt was particularly combative. "It is apparent on the face of it that this refuge and this mining project are not compatible," Babbitt said during a visit to the Okefenokee in April 1997 that made headlines around the world. He warned DuPont it would face "protracted" regulatory and legal battles unless it abandoned the project. Shortly thereafter Babbitt followed up with a letter to DuPont CEO John Krol expressing the same sentiments.
DuPont could have chosen to duke it out. Instead, it chose diplomacy. Less than a week after Babbitt's visit, the company announced it was "suspending" its mining plans and forming a "collaborative" of "interested stakeholders" to determine whether the mine would harm the Okefenokee. DuPont promised it would abide by the decision of the mediation committee, chaired by an independent "facilitator" picked by the company. The committee eventually included 28 members, a mix of environmentalists, mining and timber operators, canoeists, eco-tour guides, Native American tribal representatives, local government officials and regular folks. Notably absent were federal officials, whose presence might have "sent a false signal regarding the possibility of compromise," as Babbitt put it in 1997. Georgia state officials did not participate for similar reasons.
My initial response, and that of many others, to DuPont's "collaborative" idea was skepticism. As Josh Marks, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club, told me at the time, "I think, from the beginning, the collaborative was a way to shut down public outrage and media attention and they succeeded in part."
It may well have been the company's plan to win by attrition what it probably could not win by confrontation, a consensus for the mine. Indeed, for several months DuPont continued to adhere to the mining option: "We are open to all possible outcomes, which range from mining to no mining," the company's Samborski told me as the collaborative he organized was beginning its work the summer of 1997. If that was the plan, however, it was overcome by events. The war of attrition turned in favor of the opponents in a most interesting way.
In February 1999, after more than 18 months of meetings, marked initially by mistrust, testiness and some vitriol but ultimately mutual understanding, DuPont signed an agreement with the collaborative in which it promised to abandon its mining plans and retire the mineral rights in return for unspecified compensation. The agreement also commits the collaborative committee and DuPont to help compensate the local area for revenues and other economic benefits it would have realized from the mining operation.
At one point DuPont predicted the mine would have created 85 local jobs, and another 50 people would have been transferred to the Folkston site when it shut down its Florida operations. The company said that, in all, the operation would have added more than $20 million a year in payroll, property taxes, goods and services to the local economy. What local folks who depend on tourist traffic for their livelihoods worried about was the specter of giant dredges and suction pumps operating 24 hours a day, possibly visible from the refuge access road, and as many as 400 trucks a week hauling ore down the two-lane highway to the company's Florida processing plant. Tourism adds more than $55 million to the economies of Charlton, Ware and Clinch counties.
So the local compensation specified by the agreement largely is in the form of tourism development, the centerpiece of which is the creation of the Okefenokee Education and Research Center to be operated by the Georgia Wildlife Federation, a key participant in the collaborative negotiations. DuPont and the committee agreed to help raise funds for the center, and the company guaranteed it would provide matching grants for several other projects, including renovations of the Charlton County courthouse and a number of historic and public buildings, road improvements, and tourism promotion.
Where the money for all this will come from is an open question. At one point the collaborative committee floated a figure of $90 million for the whole package, but everyone I talked with collaborative members and DuPont officials alike now agrees that amount is unrealistic.
And, here's an indication of how tough it's going to be to get federal money: U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican in whose district the Okefenokee is situated, tried to have $16.7 million inserted in the Interior Department's budget for next year. The request did not make it through either appropriations committee in Congress for several reasons. For one, it probably lacked support from Babbitt's department. For another, it was made too late in the budget process. And for still another, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, the Republican who represents Georgia's 1st District and who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, is philosophically opposed to acquiring more federal land.
The money would have come the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund that is endowed by royalties from federal oil and gas leases. The appropriation would have gone toward acquiring 10,000 acres the collaborative agreement specified would be added directly to the refuge and restored for wildlife habitat. The parcels include 7,500 acres of DuPont land and 2,500 acres owned by a local timber company that have long been coveted by the Okefenokee's managers because they are surrounded by the refuge. The money also would have purchased DuPont's interests in another 8,500 acres. The remaining 23,000 acres of the mining tract are subject to appraisal to determine the value of DuPont's mineral rights and the value of the royalties DuPont would have paid to the local timber company.
Until the land issues are settled, the focus of everyone's attention is the Okefenokee Education and Research Center, the plans for which were revealed in November at perhaps the final meeting of the collaborative. The OERC will be housed in three historic school buildings in downtown Folkston that will be renovated into laboratories, classrooms, a scientific research station and a natural history museum. The center has attracted strong support among several local Georgia legislators and hopes are high for a $5 million appropriation from the Georgia General Assembly next year to get it started.
"That's probably going to happen," said Roger Wangsness, president of the local chamber of commerce who runs a bed & breakfast inn in Folkston. "The local community felt like it was a turning point. We feel very good about it."
Clearly the center represents the most visible outcome so far in DuPont's campaign to redeem itself in the eyes of the local and larger environmental communities. "We believe that the OERC will be the key enduring legacy of this process and we're working to support its establishment,' said DuPont's Straitman, who was in Folkston for the unveiling. It should be noted, however, that despite DuPont's enthusiasm, it has not yet offered any money to get it started.
The overriding question, of course, is whether DuPont will keep its promise to abandon its mining plans, considering that it might take years to receive compensation.
"We believe that DuPont negotiated in good faith and have no reason to believe that they would back out," said Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife for The Wilderness Society in Washington.
"DuPont has said it is willing to work real hard to make the no-mine agreement work, and I'm willing to take them at their word," said Sam Collier, regional representative of the Sierra Club.
And what does DuPont say? "We understand that the funding process will be a lengthy one, and we're prepared to be patient," Straitman told me. "We have stated publicly many times that mining by DuPont is 'off the table.' However, we have an obligation to our owners, that is, our stockholders, to do our best to obtain fair compensation for our investment."
David R. Osier is a former assistant managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and former publisher & editor of Georgia Journal Magazine, now defunct. He has written extensively on the Okefenokee and environmental issues, and his work has appeared in Atlanta Magazine and Georgia Trend Magazine.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.