The largest National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern United States just got a little bigger.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, located in southeastern Georgia, spans more than 402,000 acres. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently purchased 1,046 acres adjacent to the edge of the refuge from Rayonier Inc., and then immediately donated the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.
The land, three separate tracks on the northwest edge of the refuge, will be returned to a longleaf pine forest starting this year when TNC plants trees on 200 acres. The area will be managed for threatened and endangered species, such as the red cockaded woodpecker and Eastern indigo snake, but it will also serve a very human purpose: fighting wildfires.
In recent years, the property has been impacted by wildfire, including 2007 when more than 564,450 acres burned in Georgia and Florida. The newly acquired land rounds out the refuge boundary and provides the Service with some extra room to maneuver to fight future wildfires.
Many partners played a role in adding these acres to the refuge. Through strong relationships with Rayonier, TNC negotiated the specifics of the purchase. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources was awarded federal funds for this project. Those funds, in addition to a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, were used by the Conservancy to purchase the property. The two grants, totaling about $1 million, will also fund efforts over the next three years to restore an estimated 500 acres from industrial timber land to longleaf pine forest.
"We are so pleased to have played a role in adding these critical acres to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a storied landscape that is a local and national treasure," said Shelly Lakly, state director for TNC in Georgia.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded TNC and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources the Southern Region Director's Conservation Award in 2010 to commemorate this transaction, noting that this transaction offered a rare opportunity to reestablish longleaf pine forest and gain a wide array of conservation benefits on lands that are now part of the refuge.
"This land acquisition is a wonderful example of what can happen when conservation-minded agencies and landowners come together to improve our natural resources," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Supervisor Pete Jerome. "Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, the state of Georgia and Rayonier, we are better able to prevent wildfires, and we can continue restoring the longleaf pine forest for the benefit of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and other wildlife species."
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established by Executive Order in 1936, and encompasses the approximately 7,000-year-old Okefenokee Swamp, a vast peat-filled bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The Okefenokee Swamp derives its name from Choctaw Indian words meaning "quivering earth" or "Land of the Trembling Earth;" Native Americans occupied the Okefenokee Swamp as early as 2500 B.C.
There are 621 species of plants found on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. 233 species of birds have been identified in the refuge, along with 49 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles, 37 species of amphibians and 39 species of fish. Endangered species found on the refuge include the red-cockaded woodpecker, American bald eagle, and the wood stork.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public year-round. Visitation at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is approximately 400,000 people per year.
The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the world's premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America's fish, wildlife and plants. Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida's Pelican Island as the first wildlife refuge in 1903, the System has grown to more than 150 million acres, 552 national wildlife refuges and other units of the Refuge System, plus 37 wetland management districts.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. TNC and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide, including more than 285,000 acres across Georgia. Visit TNC on the Web at http://www.nature.org/georgia