Celebrating the Okefenokee Wilderness

Forty-two years ago, the earth trembled with delight. On October 1, 1974, the Okefenokee Swamp, also known as the Land of Trembling Earth, was provided permanent protection as a National Wilderness Area by Congress and President Gerald Ford.

Under wilderness designation, the highest form of protection provided to federal lands, the Okefenokee could slowly return to its natural state of tannin-stained waters, fire-scorched forest and resurrected prairie without the threat of future development or degradation. The bill that ushered in this new standard of conservation, House Resolution 6395, was championed by the Georgia Conservancy and successfully pushed through Congress by U.S. Representatives Bill Stuckey of Eastman, Georgia and Bo Ginn of Savannah.

“The first time that I visited the swamp I was in my mid or late twenties,” recalls Congressman Stuckey, who is now 81. “Once you get in there and you paddle the trails and explore Billy’s Island and feel the earth trembling, you really start to understand the swamp and its beauty. The more you see of the Okefenokee, the deeper you go into the Okefenokee, the more you want to know and to learn. It’s a place that you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. To get out and walk on that land, to canoe those trails, to see the wildlife, the alligators - it’s a different and incredible experience.”

The otherworldly ecosystem found in the Okefenokee is one of the true wonders of America. A mix of cypress and black gum swamp, upland pine forest, and freshwater lakes, the Okefenokee Wilderness offers its visitors a spectrum of beauty and provides its array of inhabitants - American alligators, black bears and red-cockaded woodpeckers, to name but a few -  a sanctuary to live undisturbed in a modern world.

But it was not always this way.

The beauty that we see today is deliberate. The Okefenokee is not a natural system singularly defying the force of progress, and it is not an untouched, unclaimed paradise waiting to be discovered - it is a place that was intentionally saved by the will of man. Concerned citizens, scientists, lawmakers and conservation groups came together, fought for and decided the fate of this national treasure. On a number of occasions, had it not been for the swift action of this coalition of stewards, the Okefenokee, as we know it, would have perished – drained, mined, cut and developed.

From the 1890s through the 1930s, the Okefenokee was under continuous assault from enterprising ventures. A canal was built to drain the swamp into the St. Marys River with the hope that timber operations and cotton, rice and sugar plantations would eventually thrive. Fortunately, the canal project failed; the Okefenokee’s vast and inhospitable terrain had saved it from complete eradication. But, timber harvesting eventually took off in the swamp after the turn of the century, and by the end of the 1920s, more than 400 million board feet of timber, mostly cypress and pine, had been removed from the Okefenokee.

The federal government took ownership of much of the Okefenokee during the Great Depression and it laid out grand plans to build another canal through the swamp - one that would cut across southern Georgia and northern Florida and that would connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It was an ambitious project that would have destroyed the Okefenokee.

Fortunately, Francis Harper, a keen naturalist who loved the swamp and understood its ecological importance, had the ear of President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1936, Harper convinced Roosevelt to set aside nearly 400,000 acres of the Okefenokee and designate it as a National Wildlife Refuge.

Though it was now protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the full onslaught of development, the Okefenokee was not immune to the whims of man. A sill was constructed in the 1950s to help control the natural wildfires that the swamp ecosystem is dependent upon, and local residents were still permitted to live, hunt, fish and forage within the boundaries of the refuge - increasing the need for intervention during such wildfires.

The designation of much of the Okefenokee, nearly 344,000 acres, as wilderness largely restricted human influence in the swamp, and it allowed for wildfires to burn and periodically renew the land as nature had intended. It also significantly reduced the misuse of habitat, either from the government or outside parties.

Wilderness designation was a tough battle that both Congressman Stuckey and the Georgia Conservancy tackled head on.

“The little things in my mind, when you look back, was how close Cumberland Island and the Okefenokee came to never being protected,” recalls Stuckey. “Part of it was politics. Both [the protection of Cumberland and the Okefenokee] were fairly controversial at the time. With the Okefenokee, much of the push back came from the landowners and the counties. They were concerned about access for honey harvesters, hunters and fishermen.”

Hans Neuhauser, Executive Director of the Georgia Conservancy Coastal Office from 1972 to 1992, met with Congressman Stuckey and Senator Herman Talmadge in 1973 to advocate for the Okefenokee’s wilderness designation, and later he testified before the Senate in support of House Resolution 6395.

“It is truly remarkable,” Neuhauser testified, “that one of this nation’s most outstanding wilderness areas still remains without the protection of the Wilderness Act of 1964.”

In addition to meetings in Washington and testimonies before congressional committees, the Georgia Conservancy was active in and around the Okefenokee gathering support for the wilderness designation.

“The Georgia Conservancy was crucial in getting the swamp protected,” says Stuckey. “They held a lot of public meetings around the Okefenokee. It was a great help in making the public aware of the positive protection that wilderness designation would give. A lot of people felt like the swamp didn’t need any more protection, as it was already a National Wildlife Refuge. But that designation really didn’t give it the protection that it deserved - the protection that wilderness would give. Wilderness designation really restricted the amount of human activity that could take place in the Okefenokee. The local community eventually worked with the Department of the Interior and my office to really see this through.”

Today, forty years after its protection as wilderness, the Okefenokee Wilderness is one of the wildest places in America and remains one of the most remote locations in all of the Southeast. Our efforts to see the Okefenokee permanently protected didn’t end with its wilderness designation in 1974. It continues to be at the forefront of our advocacy and stewardship efforts, whether they be in Washington, Atlanta, Folkston or on Billy’s Island.

On behalf of the Okefenokee Wilderness, the Georgia Conservancy thanks its members who advocated for protection of the swamp, Congressmen Bill Stuckey and the late Bo Ginn for championing the necessary legislation, the local citizens who understood the historic importance of wilderness designation, and fellow conservation organizations who lobbied before Congress and in townhalls.  The Okefenokee would not be without our combined efforts.

Learn more about the Georgia Conservancy's Advocacy Program

Learn more about the Georgia Conservancy's annual Okefenokee Adventure

For more information about the Georgia Conservancy history of advocating for the Okefenokee, please contact Georgia Conservancy Communications Director Brian Foster at bfoster@gaconservancy.org.