June 22, 2024

Sep. 24—ATLANTA- Following widespread bipartisan support, the National Park Service announced Friday that it will nominate the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List.

Inscription on the World Heritage List would honor the Okefenokee’s natural and cultural significance and solidify the United States’ commitment to protect it.

“This is an opportunity to unite the communities of the Okefenokee and involve people in a meaningful way, activating the natural resources economy by supporting this collective effort to bring international recognition to one of the world’s great natural wonders, the Okefenokee,” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

The Okefenokee’s World Heritage bid has bipartisan congressional support, and the Park Service received more than 10,300 public comments in support of moving forward with a nomination. The nomination also has the endorsement of more than 30 national, state and local organizations.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 400,000 acres, encompassing approximately 93% of the mosaic of wetlands that comprise the Okefenokee Swamp. Its vast, untrammeled ecosystems support hundreds of species of plants and animals, including endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and threatened eastern indigo snakes. Okefenokee would be the first property managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to earn the World Heritage distinction.

“It’s thrilling that Okefenokee is finally taking this momentous step toward World Heritage inscription,” said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s a huge motivator to protect this irreplaceable, international treasure. From the towering old-growth cypress to the tea-colored wetlands teeming with amphibians and reptiles, every last inch of Okefenokee deserves our recognition and protection.”

“We’re delighted to see Okefenokee NWR take the next step in its journey toward inclusion on the World Heritage List,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of our best examples of holistic conservation in the United States. The Okefenokee Swamp is intact due in large part to the establishment of the refuge in 1937. The Swamp comprises the headwaters of two rivers, it provides habitat for a myriad of wildlife species, including several endangered species, it sequesters vast amounts of carbon in its wet, peat soils that might otherwise be emitted and exacerbate global warming and climate change — and its list of outstanding attributes goes on and on.”

“A World Heritage Site designation is reserved for the most superlative places on the earth,” said Ben Prater, Southeast Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife. “It is only fitting a place like the Okefenokee — with its unparalleled wild character, thriving biodiversity and cultural significance — be considered for this recognition. This nomination is an important step to ensure this precious and irreplaceable piece of our natural heritage is protected into the future.”

Friday’s notice kicks off a years-long nomination process, including the preparation of a detailed nomination dossier highlighting the Okefenokee’s “outstanding universal value,” the international metric used to evaluate potential World Heritage sites.

The Okefenokee’s universal value is evident from its vast biodiversity, rare longleaf pine ecosystems, and unique peat formations that contain information about global conditions over thousands of years. It’s also a unique, rainfall-fed headwaters wetland and the origin of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. Unlike other renowned wetlands, it remains largely unharmed by human interference.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge will draft the nomination through a unique public-private partnership with the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park to provide project management and financial resources to support Okefenokee’s World Heritage bid. With these resources in place, the refuge is well positioned to forward a successful nomination to the National Park Service.

Inscription on the World Heritage List is the highest honor in the world for sites of ecological importance like the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The designation does not impose any new rules and regulations.

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