Okefenokee mining proposal threatens ecology, prescribed fire

Apr 15, 2024

Photo by Larry A. Woodward/USFWS

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last true bastions of the old world, giving us a glimpse into our nation’s natural history.

However, a new mining threat has put the swamp’s future in peril and has drawn attention from federal agencies, independent scientists and the public.

Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, an Alabama-based Company, has been working since 2019 to receive approval to mine on a site within three miles of the Okefenokee along the Trail Ridge, with the potential to expand to within 400 feet from the edge of the swamp.

The Trail Ridge, the sandy remains of an ancient barrier island system, acts as an earthen dam that blocks water in the swamp from draining east. Minerals and heavy metals, such as Titanium Dioxide, which the company is hoping to extract saturate the sands of the ridge.

Stretching over 407,000 acres, the blackwater swamp provides habitat for hundreds of animal and plant species making it an incredible biodiversity hotspot. This wealth of flora and fauna and the nature of the refuge have been the driving force behind its recent nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a move that supporters of the refuge hope will help drive tourism to the area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about the potential impacts of mining in such close proximity to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, notably, the risk of lowered water levels being a consequence of withdrawals from the Floridan Aquifer as was detailed in the company’s groundwater withdrawal application.

The Service explained that lowered groundwater levels, especially during periods of severe drought, will heighten the risk of frequent, catastrophic wildland fires.

Tall Timbers has voiced opposition to the mining permit.

The Okefenokee Swamp is no stranger to fire and, like many other ecosystems, has been impacted by fires, especially during dry conditions.

However, drought conditions, which could be exacerbated by lower water levels from the adjacent mining operations, will result in more frequent and intense wildfires.

The potential for increased air quality issues from wildfire smoke is significant given the Okefenokee’s peatlands.

Consisting of layers of dead plant matter accumulated over thousands of years, these peat beds can be up to 15 feet deep and store tremendous amounts of carbon.

Fueled by these rich peatlands, the Honey Prairie Fire started in April 2011 and spread throughout the Okefenokee. It scorched 309,200 acres and billowed particulate-filled smoke for nearly a year before it was declared extinguished in April of 2012.

Wildfire smoke and other air pollutants have made headlines in recent months as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tightened the national standards for air quality.

The new rule significantly reduces the annual particulate matter 2.5 standard.

As a result, private lands prescribed burners in airsheds affected by wildfire smoke — which can travel hundreds of miles — will be denied burn permits during these periods, removing prescribed fire from this fire-dependent landscape and furthering the risk of wildfires in the region.

This is a significant concern for Tall Timbers on top of the other challenges already posed by the EPA’s lower PM 2.5 standard.

Since 1958 Tall Timbers has pioneered the use of and advocated for prescribed fire as an exemplary land management tool.

Although Tall Timbers’ primary focus areas are the Red Hills and Albany regions, it is just as important to promote comprehensive and science-based fire regimes throughout the entirety of the southeast. While the Okefenokee may not be close geographically, the policy and management decisions made there can and do affect land managers in our region.

In response to these extensive and potentially disastrous consequences of the proposed Twin Pines Minerals mine, both to the ecology of one of our nation’s best-preserved natural resources and the fire regime of the region, Tall Timbers submitted a letter to Georgia Environmental Protection Department urging it to not approve the mining permit.

Click Here to read the letter in full.

For additional information contact Ben Naselius at bnaselius@talltimbers.org

About the Author
Ben Naselius
Ben Naselius is Tall Timbers' Red Hills Planner. He has a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from Florida State University, moonlights as the owner of a traveling bookstore, and loves performing music, reading and camping.
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