Conservation

Could mining impact the Okefenokee?

A century in the past, the Hebard Cypress firm razed what was then thought-about a nuisance swamp in southeast Georgia of its pond cypress. Some 400 million ft of timber was eliminated in whole, and all this after a canal was dredged to empty the swamp altogether. The previous effort was deserted after solely 11 miles had been dug. The concept, after all, was to show this inconvenient swath of wetlands actual property into timber farms and croplands.

Fortunately, it didn’t work out that method.

At present, the Okefenokee Swamp is the stuff of legend. The cypress timber have returned, and the realm is among the many wildest within the American Southeast. It’s a large blackwater swamp consisting of some 394,000 acres of designated wilderness. And it is a wilderness. On any given day, alligators (about 15,000 of them) outnumber human guests, and its patented tannic waters and marshy prairies present refuge for the whole lot starting from endangered crimson cockaded woodpeckers to river otters to a wholesome inhabitants of black bears. It was protected by government order because the Okefenokee Nationwide Wildlife Refuge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

Sarcastically, it’s one other government motion—this one by former president Donald J. Trump—that is likely to be placing this treasured swath of American wildlands in danger. And it’s one other extractive trade that stands to learn 100 years after the swamp was first razed for its timber assets. This time, although, the menace is extra advanced and extra nuanced, and it comes within the type of a sketchy plan to mine sand on the fringes for the refuge for titanium and zirconium.

Darkish-water wonderland for anglers

I pushed by way of the little channel carved among the many moss-draped cypress timber, barely making a wake with the little 6-horse outboard connected to the strict of the aluminum skiff. It was my first go to to the swamp, and my head was on a swivel. I’d been within the backcountry for lower than an hour, and if I’d seen one 10-foot alligator lurking within the grass alongside the channel, I’d seen a dozen.

For a Rocky Mountain trout angler, this was about as totally different because it will get. Now, I’m no stranger to wild nation — I fish the backcountry of the Yellowstone area each summer season and into the autumn. However this was totally different. This was primal and, truthfully, a little bit creepy. Residence to the aforementioned gators, the swamp can be prime habitat for snakes, together with the cottonmouth — a dusky black venomous serpent recognized for its random aggression at instances — and a number of creepy crawlies I needed completely nothing to do with.

I used to be, nevertheless, within the fish, however most likely not the fish many individuals consider when they give thought to casting a line in southern Georgia.

The Okefenokee isn’t terribly well-known for its piscine assets — the tannic acid-laced water makes for one thing of an austere atmosphere for sometimes appreciated recreation fish within the area. As a substitute of bass, crappie and sunfish (like shellcrackers or bluegill), the swamp is dwelling to lesser-known fish, like flyers, warmouth, chain pickerel, bullhead catfish and the highly effective bowfin.

It was the latter that had captured my creativeness from my dwelling in Idaho, some 2,000 miles to the northwest. These prehistoric fish are seemingly older than the Cretaceous interval gators with which they nonetheless share the swamp. The bowfin — additionally known as a mudfish, dogfish, grinnel or swamp trout — is exclusive among the many native fish of North America. Its vary stretches from the swamps of the South to the backwaters of southern Ontario. Like its closest relative, the gar, it’s a “bimodal” breather — it could possibly gulp air, an vital adaptive high quality for fish residing in waters liable to low oxygen ranges.

For anglers, although, the bowfin’s magnificence comes within the type of its aggressive nature. It’s an ambush predator with a nasty disposition, and within the Okefenokee, it clearly rests atop the fishy meals chain.

Suggested by the proprietor within the present store at Stephen C. Foster State Park — certainly one of a handful of entry factors to the Okefenokee — I had acquired a dozen Yellow Sally flies. Not the Yellow Sally us trout anglers may use throughout a stonefly hatch, however one thing extra intently resembling a vivid yellow or chartreuse Wooly Bugger. And the locals wouldn’t essentially name a Yellow Sally a “fly,” nevertheless it clearly meets the necessities as such. I’d additionally tied up a handful of weighted yellow Clousers and I’d crafted a couple of different yellow Slumpbusters. As you may suspect, in doing analysis previous to my go to, I used to be suggested by one angler, “Any colour will work so long as it’s yellow.”

It is sensible, I suppose. The water within the swamp, filtered by way of mats of decaying wooden and leaf litter, is the colour of sturdy espresso. For ambush predators, the very first thing an angler must do is get its consideration, and what higher method to try this than with a gaudy, vivid yellow fly.

The boats rented by way of Okefenokee Adventures (a part of a non-public non-profit partnership) don’t have anchors, so it’s robust to simply cease and forged. First, the swamp has a present, delicate although it might be. Consider the Okefenokee as a large rain barrel with two spouts on the lip of the barrel on both aspect. One spout sends water down the well-known Suwanee River, right through northwest Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. The opposite sends water down the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic. So the water’s all the time shifting.

Picture: Steve Brooks / USFWS / cc2.0

As a substitute of anchoring, I’d hunt down little “batteries” or “blowups.” These are little quaking islands of once-sunken peat (Okefenokee is a Choctaw phrase that interprets into “land of trembling earth”) that rise to the floor because of the emission of methane and carbon dioxide created from the decomposition of all of the plant matter that makes up the highest layer of the swamp’s backside. I’d gently nudge the little craft onto a battery and make a couple of casts.

The bowfin weren’t shy, and it didn’t take lengthy earlier than I related with a foot-long fish that blasted out of the darkish water and placed on an aerial show that rivaled that of any bass or trout (or, frankly, tarpon) I’d tangled with prior to now. Similar to that, I used to be hooked. Bowfin, I made up my mind then and there, could be my subsequent dependancy.

The prediction has held true. I returned to the swamp the next spring, and I pulled a bowfin out of the swamp that measured properly over 30 inches in size. The dependancy worsened. I’m now a hopeless bowfin junkie. I’ll return for my subsequent repair when the pandemic subsides, as a result of the fish are definitely worth the worth and toil of cross-country journey. I’ve even toyed with the thought of in search of out a little bit Suwanee River fish camp the place I may spend a couple of months every winter, away from the chilly and grey of Idaho and among the many “swamp trout” of the South.

It’s all within the sand

However the swamp and my beloved bowfin now face one more existential menace from the “progress” of humankind. The sandy soil that lies beneath the peat that coats the underside of the Okefenokee has the unlucky luck to comprise some pretty priceless heavy minerals, and one Alabama mining firm — Twin Pines LLC — has a plan to go and get them.

And that plan obtained a little bit nearer to changing into a actuality because of the Trump administration’s rule change regarding Clear Water Act steerage — the Waters of the U.S. Rule that principally protected headwater streams and wetlands from growth was principally thrown out. When the change went into impact in October 2020, about 400 acres of marshlands within the proposed 900-acre Part One of many Twin Pines mining plan all of the sudden not fell underneath the purview of the federal regulatory course of. That is vital on two ranges. First, many opponents of the mine crafted detailed feedback to the U.S. Military Corps of Engineers (the only allowing company till October 2020) final spring concerning the mining course of. Second, to mine titanium and zirconium — each are metallic alloys utilized in the whole lot from pipe fittings to jewellery — inside just some miles of the Okefenokee Nationwide Wildlife Refuge, Twin Pines will now solely want to hunt permits from the Georgia Environmental Safety Division and the environmental regulators employed by Charlton County. The feedback from anti-mining pursuits are actually largely moot and have to be refined and resubmitted to the state and county.

To say the bar has been lowered is an understatement.

Sand mining for heavy minerals within the area is nothing new. A “ridge” of this mineral-rich sand stretches from Georgia south into Florida, and mining the sand ridge has been ongoing each north and south of the refuge for many years. However the Twin Pines proposal is for the sand ridge, formally known as Path Ridge, that’s located proper up towards the southeastern boundary of the refuge. This makes it distinctive — keep in mind the rain barrel analogy?

Path ridge is basically the lip of the barrel. Of all of the water within the swamp, some 95 % of it originates as rainfall. A full 80 % of that rainfall evaporates into the environment, leaving the remaining 20 % of that rainfall to exit the swamp through the Suwanee River to the west and the St. Mary’s River to the east. Ought to one thing occur to the lip of the rain barrel, or if different holes are inadvertently punched into it, water leaving the swamp down the St. Mary’s River, which creates the Georgia-Florida border because it winds its solution to the ocean, could possibly be tremendously diminished.

okefenokee swamp

Picture: Jim Sorbie / cc2.0

Is that basically a priority? Effectively, the Twin Pines mining plan would have the corporate mining the sand some 50 ft beneath the elevation of the Okefenokee Swamp itself. At this depth, groundwater hydrology comes into play.

From the Georgia Conservancy’s comments, first submitted to the USACE within the spring of 2020:

“The appliance outlines a plan to excavate a median of fifty ft beneath the land floor, type the fabric with a moist mill, and backfill in a 24-hour per day operation. The method exposes roughly 25-40 acres of floor monthly. A lot of the realm close to Path Ridge possesses groundwater inside two ft of the bottom floor, and the positioning isn’t any exception. Throughout the geohydrology research, a mannequin for the present Path Ridge groundwater situations, in addition to adjustments to groundwater circulation from mining operations decrease the groundwater desk, impacting Path Ridge wetlands.”

Sadly, in line with GC, the Twin Pines allow software is woefully brief on particulars and depends on very small soil and water desk pattern sizes on which to base a whole mining operation.

“The appliance nonetheless lacks important data from the applicant,” GC wrote in its feedback to the USACE final spring. “The Okefenokee Swamp is a singular ecosystem and Path Ridge is an integral element inside it. Provided that close by mining may impose important impacts on this ecological treasure, the Georgia Conservancy respectfully requests the event of a full Environmental Affect Assertion (EIS) to evaluate cumulative impacts from all future phases of mining, over all the Twin Pines-controlled property (12,000 acres).”

Twin Pines, then again, heralds its processes as “cleaner” and “extra environmentally pleasant” than conventional “moist mining” approach that comes with using a dredge and floating concentrator to get on the minerals.

It ought to be famous that Twin Pines whole mining course of description consists of four paragraphs on its website — even a “myth vs. facts” part on the Twin Pines web site makes uncited claims that aren’t even remotely backed up by even a touch of information or science. Among the claims are simply plain flawed — the notion that the corporate could be held to the strictest of Clear Water Act requirements went out the window when the Trump administration ditched the Waters of the U.S. Rule final fall — this rule protected headwater streams and wetlands all around the nation from unpermitted growth. Maybe the troubles expressed by GC concerning the dearth of salient mining particulars on the a part of the corporate have advantage.

The conservation group American Rivers thinks so. In 2020, the Okefenokee Swamp and the St. Mary’s River got here in at No. 8 on the group’s doubtful checklist of most-endangered rivers.

The economics

Predictably, the corporate’s financial affect data it supplies is a little more strong than its skeletal define of its mining strategies. Take into account this:

The entire capital funding from Twin Pines into the regional economic system can be $300 million, the company reports. At Charlton County’s present 36.46 mill levy, that may come to a $4.375 million annual property tax contribution to county coffers. The mission would make use of 400 full-time employees, every incomes an annual wage/advantages package deal price about $60,000, the corporate says. This, the corporate claims, doesn’t rely the “creation of many extra employment alternatives in assist industries corresponding to transportation, gas suppliers, industrial supplies suppliers, and energy manufacturing techniques.”

Lastly, the mission’s lifespan could possibly be as much as 20 years, “which supplies alternatives for long-term employment and prolonged monetary advantages for the county and its residents,” the corporate claims.

However the refuge itself, and the encompassing state parks and different public lands, current equally enviable financial statistics, maybe even moreso. In accordance with the federal register in 2005, the 1999 financial affect of tourism in Charlton, Ware and Clinch counties in Georgia exceeded $67 million. That was when the refuge attracted 400,000 guests a 12 months. In accordance with GC, at the moment, “greater than 600,000 guests per 12 months go to the Okefenokee Nationwide Wildlife Refuge and its surrounding state and native parks.”

That may imply, in 1999 {dollars}, whole visitation at the moment would have an financial affect of greater than $100 million yearly for the three counties. Factoring in inflation, that quantity, in at the moment’s {dollars}, could be near $160 million yearly. If the swamp and the encompassing ecosystem stays wholesome, that quantity doesn’t have a 20-year expiration date on it.

Kim Bednarek, the chief director of Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross, Ga., and Okefenokee Adventures close to Fargo, Ga., the place I rented my skiff, famous in a Zoom name with the Georgia Conservancy final fall that Charlton, Ware and Clinch counties are all depending on tourism.

“Our focus, our mission is on ecological tourism,” Bednarek stated. “So many people rely upon our friends who come to see us and are available to go to the Okefenokee. It’s a profoundly stunning place to go to.”

And, or course, the well being of the swamp is important to the area’s vibrant tourism sector, she stated.

“We’re intimately related to the well being and wellness of the Okefenokee Swamp,” she defined. “And we’re additionally related to the neighborhood. We’re passionate in regards to the science, we’re following the science with this specific concern, and we’re excited to be on the desk and collaborating on this specific concern.”

Bear in mind the rain barrel

I can’t assist however return to the rain barrel analogy. However maybe this one’s higher: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that oversees the refuge calls the Okefenokee “an unlimited peat-filled bathroom inside an enormous, saucer-shaped despair that was as soon as a part of the ocean ground.”

This “saucer” feeds two nice Southern rivers that meander to the salt by way of two states and throughout miles and miles of each rural and populated landscapes. The swamp is, in each sense of the phrase, the headwaters of the area’s two nice watersheds. And people headwaters, because of the cancellation of the Waters of the U.S. Rule, are actually susceptible.

What occurs while you put the headwaters of the St. Mary’s and Suwanee rivers in danger by planning (and maybe allowing) a scantily defined mining operation that might alter the hydrology of those delicate watersheds?

Hopefully, we gained’t have to search out out.

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