Dozens of Groups Urge Interior Department to Greenlight Okefenokee World Heritage Bid

ATLANTA — More than 30 national, state and local organizations today called on Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland and the U.S. Department of the Interior to formally approve the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s bid for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Today’s letter follows Minister Haaland’s visit to the refuge on Friday, after which she took to social media to express the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting special places like Okefenokee.

Today’s letter identifies a World Heritage nomination as an important step the administration could take to protect the Okefenokee and its vast ecosystems and biodiversity for future generations. World Heritage status would also increase global visibility and provide growth opportunities for sustainable tourism with corresponding economic benefits for communities in the region.

“It’s an opportunity to unite the communities of the Okefenokee in a meaningful dialogue about the many benefits of having both a National Conservation Area and a World Heritage Site in the heart of the region,” said Kim Bednarek, Executive Director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

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Home Office approval would begin a year-long nomination process, including the preparation of a detailed nomination dossier. The dossier will highlight Okefenokee’s “Outstanding Universal Value,” the international measure used to assess potential World Heritage sites.

“The Okefenokee is more than ready for its chance at World Heritage status,” said Elise Bennett, Florida associate director and attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s like no other place on earth. This unique wetland is home to an amazing amount and variety of species, from the prehistoric-looking Suwannee alligator snapping turtle to the shriveled wood stork.”

“The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge system. Ecologically unique and visited by people from around the world, recognition as a World Heritage Site is well established and long overdue,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

“As one of the largest intact freshwater ecosystems in the world, the importance of the Okefenokee cannot be overstated,” said Christian Hunt, southeast representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “The swamp’s inky waters and cypress forests are home to thousands of species and offer an unparalleled wilderness experience. I can’t imagine a more worthy World Heritage Site.

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A thriving and dynamic system, the Okefenokee has Outstanding Universal Value evident in its tremendous biodiversity, rare longleaf pine ecosystems, and unique peat formations that contain information about global conditions for the past 5,000 years or more.

The Okefenokee is also a unique rainfall-fed wetland and the source of the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers. Unlike other known wetlands, it remains largely unaffected by human intervention.

The United States originally identified the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as a potential World Heritage Site in 1982 and added it to a formal “tentative list” in 2007.

Earlier this year, the refuge launched a unique public-private partnership with Okefenokee Swamp Park to provide project management and financial resources to support Okefenokee’s World Heritage bid. With these resources, the women’s shelter is well positioned to prepare and submit a successful nomination.

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The nomination and inscription on the World Heritage List is the world’s highest distinction for sites of ecological importance such as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The designation does not impose any new rules and regulations.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern United States, covering more than 400,000 acres and encompassing approximately 93% of the wetlands that make up the Okefenokee Swamp.

The refuge also includes more than 350,000 acres of congressional-designated national wilderness area, home to hundreds of plant and animal species, including the endangered red-cocked woodpecker and eastern indigo snake.

The refuge’s mission is to “protect and enhance wildlife and its habitat, ensure the integrity of the ecosystem, and embrace the greatness, mystery, and cultural heritage that lead to an enrichment of the human spirit.”

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