US Wants Wildlife Refuge in Georgia Swamp on UNESCO List

Only 25 places in the country are World Heritage sites
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 22, 2023 4:20 PM CDT
US Wants Wildlife Refuge in Georgia Swamp on UNESCO List
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge maintenance crew leader Pete Chesser, right, and crew member Walker Huling, left, pile their pruned vegetation along a wilderness water trail in April 2022 in Folkston, Ga.   (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

A US agency said Friday it will nominate the vast, federally protected wildlife refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The National Park Service filed a notice in Washington that it will seek the designation for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls across more than 400,000 acres in southeast Georgia near the Florida state line, the AP reports. Conservation groups say the rare distinction would boost the Okefenokee's profile as one of the world's last intact blackwater swamps and home to abundant alligators, endangered red cockaded woodpeckers, stilt-legged wood storks, and more than 400 other animal species.

"It would join a long list of iconic American landscapes—the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite," said Kim Bednarek, executive director of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, which is working with the US government on the refuge's nomination package. "Nobody questions the value of those places." Since the 1970s, the World Heritage list has recognized more than 1,100 natural and cultural sites worldwide for having "outstanding universal value" to humanity. Just 25 places in the US have been listed, including national parks like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and manmade landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty. The most recent US addition, a network of ancient Native American ceremonial and burial mounds in Ohio, was announced by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee on Tuesday.

The Okefenokee refuge covers more than 90% of the swamp and is the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. Its diverse wildlife, cypress forests, and flooded prairies draw roughly 600,000 visitors each year, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. Designation as a World Heritage site wouldn't impose added restrictions or regulations for the Okefenokee. But conservationists say the distinction of being listed gives governments and local communities an incentive to protect and preserve the sites. "It means the US is committing to protecting it and ensuring its integrity," said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director for the Center for Biological Diversity. At the earliest, Bednarek expects a final decision from UNESCO in 2026.

(More UNESCO stories.)

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