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EDITOR’S NOTE: Go ahead and put Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp on the same shortlist with Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, and Nevada’s Ruby Mountains—areas that provide unmatched fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities that spur the local economy but have been at risk from development interests. Here’s what you need to know about a pending mine proposal that could degrade this unique habitat and who is standing up for it.
The Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure and angler’s paradise. Among the most visited national wildlife refuges in the country, the Okefenokee is an outdoor recreation engine, hosting some 600,000 visitors annually who help to create more than 750 local jobs and a total annual economic output of $64.7 million in the region.
Covering 680 square miles, the swamp itself is the mysterious domain of black bears and American alligators. But like many untouched habitats, it isn’t easy to get to. Most people like it that way—access to the largest blackwater swamp in North America requires a canoe or john boat and the gutsy spirit of a swamper.
The Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail is visited by those seeking a truly secluded and isolated wilderness experience. The area is so expansive that even if you fished all 120 miles of the refuge’s designated water trails, you would still only have seen 2 percent of its vast beauty. Currently, there are three hunting units in the refuge, which supports abundant game that travel well beyond its borders. It’s an important sportfish nursery, a winter stopover for migratory waterfowl, and one of only three places in Georgia that supports a black bear population. The endless miles of wilderness and massive wetlands deliver clean water downstream, while the swamp is also one of North America’s largest freshwater carbon sinks.
But right now, the Okefenokee’s future hangs in the balance. In the coming months, the state of Georgia will decide whether Twin Pines Minerals, LLC, will be given permission to dig 50-foot-deep pits into the very ridge near the swamp that acts as a geological dam, maintaining water levels in the swamp and feeding the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers. Excavation would extend below the water table, and the company also wants to pump up to 1.44 million gallons of water daily from the swamp’s aquifer.
Sportsmen and sportswomen should not allow this to happen.
Scientists, including experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Georgia, recognize the hydrologic link and have warned that as groundwater is lowered by mining operations, so goes the water level in the swamp. At only 1.5 to 3 feet deep, there is not much wiggle room for water loss that could make access to the swamp impossible as the canoe trails dry up.
Lowering of the water table would also dry up the saturated peat that helps to store carbon and combat climate change. Even worse, lower water levels can induce drought conditions, and as the ecosystem changes from boggy and wet to parched, the peat fuels can easily catch fire and release a CO2 equivalent that would worsen climate effects.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has written that “should impacts occur, they may not be able to be reversed, repaired, or mitigated for,” as destruction of the peat that took thousands of years to accumulate would destroy the swamp.
And the impacts to clean water would be immediate. The proposed mining site includes some 300 acres of wetlands that help ensure the delivery of clean water to the St. Marys River, a sinuous, blackwater beauty that has its origins within the Okefenokee Swamp and harbors endangered species like the Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. These wetlands are likely to be destroyed.
Twin Pines has their mining equipment ready at the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp. If they are granted permission, the effects of the mine could be devastating and irreversible—all to retrieve titanium dioxide, a common, widely available mineral that can be found elsewhere. The uncommon Okefenokee, perhaps the wildest place in Georgia, is found nowhere else on Earth.
Visit garivers.org to learn more about the pending mine proposal and how you can stand up for the habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities in the Okefenokee.
Rena Ann Peck is executive director of Georgia River Network, advocating for water trails and science-based conservation to protect special places like the iconic Okefenokee Wilderness.
Photos courtesy of Joe Cook/Georgia River Network.
Following a 2021 that was a rollercoaster in so many ways, the year ahead provides hunters, anglers, and the conservation community with significant opportunity. Lawmakers deep in re-election cycles know that habitat, access, and conservation funding issues are things that most Americans can agree on and are eager to bring home legislative wins to their voters.
Working alongside our partners, here’s what we want to get done this year.
Passed in late 2021, the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides significant federal investment in programs benefiting fish and wildlife on public and private lands, including a first-of-its-kind five-year wildlife crossings grant program. The TRCP will closely follow the implementation of this and other programs to ensure that dollars are both benefiting fish and wildlife and enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities.
Efforts to address our changing climate continue to become less polarizing in Congress. There is significant interest among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in prioritizing carbon sequestration and nature-based solutions that mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events on vulnerable rural communities. Whether in the proposed Build Back Better package, other potential climate legislation, or the 2023 Farm Bill, the conservation community will have an active voice in the discussion.
Led by Representatives Kind of Wisconsin and Thompson of Pennsylvania, this comprehensive legislation would provide state wildlife and agriculture agencies with much needed resources for CWD management and suppression. The bill would also create a CWD research grant program to study the spread of the disease and direct the USDA to collect public feedback on ways to improve oversight of the captive deer industry. The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives in late 2021 and awaits introduction in the Senate.
In late 2021, the Biden Administration once again halted the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. While this was welcome news, more work is needed to federally protect the world’s most prolific sockeye salmon fishery in statute. The TRCP is working with lawmakers and state and national partners in developing legislation to do just that.
RAWA would provide state wildlife agencies with nearly $1.4 billion annually to implement state wildlife action plans, allowing for more proactive conservation of wildlife and associated habitat to avoid potential endangered species listings. Introduced by Representative Dingell of Michigan and Senator Heinrich of New Mexico, the legislation has bipartisan support in both chambers and would be a generational investment in wildlife conservation.
The MAPLand Act, championed by Senator Risch of Idaho and Representative Moore of Utah, would require that maps and easement records held by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are digitized and publicized for the benefit of all Americans. Doing so would bring recordkeeping into the 21st century and provide hunters and anglers with much greater certainty in planning outings on our public lands.
In the last half-century, the intense conversion of grasslands has precipitated a steep decline in associated bird populations. The TRCP and several partners have worked for the past year on developing an innovative grant program for grass and rangeland conservation that works with ranchers and landowners to improve ecosystem health and ensure that their acreage remains productive and healthy habitat for years to come. Our groups have worked closely with Senator Wyden in developing the legislation and are looking forward to bringing the bill before the House and Senate.
Largescale industrial menhaden fishing in the Gulf accounts for more than one billion pounds of this forage fish harvested each year, making it Louisiana’s largest fishery. Pogie boats often operate near shore, netting thousands of other fish species, including red drum and speckled trout. Anglers have fought to restrict these operations in the surf zone but continue to face opposition from menhaden processors citing economic impacts. In 2022, the TRCP will continue to work with partners and scientists who study the bycatch of such operations and pursue legislation to further reduce the impact of the industrial menhaden fishery on sportfish in the Gulf, with a particular focus on protecting beaches and other shallow-water habitat.
Western watersheds, such as the Colorado River and Rio Grande, face increasing pressure from wildfire and drought. Natural infrastructure approaches—such as the protection and restoration of headwater wetlands and riparian areas—have been shown to effectively reduce natural hazard risks while benefiting water users and watersheds. In 2022, TRCP is working to prioritize the implementation of natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions to address Western water challenges in various federal and state policy initiatives, with a focus on the 2023 Farm Bill and this year’s Water Resources Development Act. We’ll also be pushing for the latter legislation to improve Everglades restoration funding and build on the successful construction of projects to help restore natural waterflows.
Beyond the wildlife crossing pilot program included in recently passed legislation, additional solutions are needed to conserve big game migration corridors across the country. The TRCP and partner groups are continuing to work with state and federal land managers to increase investments in research and corridor mapping, improve interagency coordination, and conserve corridors on public land.
For more information, and to take action in support of these critical conservation priorities in the year ahead, visit the TRCP Action Center.
This is the first piece of a two-part series on how to improve Sitka black-tailed deer habitat in Southeast Alaska. This blog focuses on the role that old-growth forests play in determining hunting opportunities for deer. A future discussion will address approaches for improving deer habitat in unmanaged stands of second-growth forests.
A small deer with a big role
Despite their relatively small physical stature, Sitka black-tailed deer play a big role in the hunting traditions of Southeast Alaska, where they are the most pursued species of big game. These short and stocky ungulates, which are a subspecies of mule deer, serve as an important food source in a remote region where store-bought groceries—which are typically transported by plane or boat—are costly and limited. Many rural residents, both Alaska Natives and non-Native people, practice a subsistence lifestyle and rely on the rich, wild resources of the Tongass, such as deer, salmon, grouse, berries, mushrooms, and more.
Sitka black-tailed deer also provide one of Alaska’s best hunting opportunities for non-residents. During the 2021-2022 season, non-residents could harvest up to six deer on Admiralty Island with an over-the-counter tag. Many other big game species in Alaska require non-resident hunters to hire a guide and/or draw a coveted tag in a competitive lottery. Sitka black-tailed deer offer the most abundant opportunities for unguided hunters from the Lower 48.
The Tongass: a mosaic of deer habitat
Sitka black-tailed deer are native to the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia. Populations have also been introduced on many of the islands in Prince William Sound, near Yakutat, and on Kodiak and Afognak Islands. Much of the habitat that these animals rely on is located within the Tongass National Forest.
At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and the largest temperate rainforest in the world. Its remaining stands of old-growth timber—primarily large western hemlock and Sitka spruce trees that range from 200-700 years old—provide an ideal mosaic of habitat that is critical to the survival of deer, especially in heavy snow years. Severe winter weather is one of the biggest factors influencing the dramatic population swings affecting deer, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG).
Mature forests make the best winter range
From a deer’s perspective, not all forests are created equal. Two general factors determine the suitability of winter range in forested areas: a productive understory that provides a variety of high-quality forage, and a canopy-like overstory that prevents those food sources from being buried by snowfall.
A blanket of snow not only reduces the quantity of forage accessible to deer, it also decreases its quantity. About four inches of snow is all it takes to bury nutrient-rich herb-layer forages and non-woody plants like bunchberry and trailing bramble. Although deer will eat deciduous shrubs and conifer forage when their preferred foods are covered by snow, these lower-quality foods cause deer to lose weight (Hanley et al. 1984).
At the same time, when snow depth reaches approximately 10 to 12 inches, deer sink in the snow beyond their front knee, which greatly increases the amount of energy required for deer to walk and run.
As snow depth builds, a deer’s diminished energy intake and heightened energy expenditure poses a significant threat to its survival. Population declines in Sitka black-tailed deer have typically been attributed to starvation during winters with deep and persistent snow.
A common misconception about clearcuts
While many hunters view clearings from logging as beneficial for deer habitat, the severe winters in Southeast Alaska create a different situation, where old-growth stands are most beneficial. It’s true that young, open stands provide forage during snow-free months. However, a lack of mature trees to intercept snow often makes these food sources unavailable during Alaska’s harsh winters. Deer also face higher predation risks in snowbound open areas.
As these clearings transition into even-age second-growth stands (>20-30 years), the available forage is reduced substantially as the closure of the forest canopy virtually eliminates the understory. These conditions persist for the remainder of the 90- to 125-year timber harvest rotation (Schoen and Kirchhoff, 1984). Data from fecal pellet studies confirms that Sitka black-tailed deer use quality old-growth habitat year-round more than recent clearcuts and unmanaged, closed-canopy young growth.
In discussing the threats facing Sitka black-tailed deer, ADFG cautions, “habitat capability and deer numbers are expected to decline in some areas as large tracts of previously logged areas reach the closed canopy stem exclusion stage and become extremely poor deer habitat. Population models predict declines in deer carrying capacity in the Ketchikan area of 50–60 percent by the end of the logging rotation in 2054.”
In the long run, a deer population that is forced to rely on unmanaged clearcuts will suffer.
Note: A future blog post will address strategies for managing young-growth forests to improve wildlife habitat.
Take action for Sitka black-tail habitat
The greater the expanse of mature forests, the greater the opportunity for wintering deer to obtain sufficient energy and maintain healthy populations. That’s why the TRCP supports reinstating the Roadless Rule in Alaska, which will restore safeguards to more than 9 million acres of undeveloped forests in the Tongass, including critical Sitka black-tail habitat. Join us in sharing your support for the Roadless Rule with the Forest Service.
Photos courtesy of Bethany Goodrich.
Bjorn Dihle is a lifelong Southeast Alaskan whose world revolves around the incredible habitat and fish and wildlife resources of the region. As a wildlife guide and writer, he knows how fortunate he has been to enjoy the wild backcountry of the Tongass National Forest, a legacy that he hopes to pass on to his young sons one day. As a result, Dihle has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of the balanced management of the nation’s largest national forest, working to see a reinstated Roadless Rule safeguard more than 9.2 million acres of undeveloped habitat.
Bjorn’s latest book, A Shape in the Dark, is a fascinating and memorable tribute to brown bears. Outside Magazine, which describes it as “part history, part adventure narrative,” named it one of its best books of 2021. Purchase on Amazon Smile to build your conservation library while supporting TRCP’s work.
Here is his story:
My dad and my mom moved from California to Alaska when they were in their early twenties. Dad wanted to hunt, fish, and experience the wild country of the Tongass National Forest. My two brothers and I grew up listening to his stories and following him around in the woods. He untangled countless yards of our fishing line and we spooked who knows how many deer during our early “hunts” with him. He bought each of us our first big game rifle. Just as important, he instilled a reverence for wild places and animals in us that still guides me today.
I could probably only hunt Southeast Alaska for the rest of my life and be happy. Sitka blacktail is my favorite meat and an August alpine deer hunt is darn near impossible to beat. I love caribou and sheep country up in interior and northern Alaska, but I’m happy to wander there without a rifle. I was lucky enough to be born and live where I am.
One of my most memorable experiences outdoors occurred on Chichagof Island, where during a late spring evening I counted 35 brown bears feeding in one watershed. There were a fair amount of Sitka blacktails, too. In the 1980s, the Forest Service had wanted to clearcut this area and surrounding mountains. Biologists, hunters, and people who care about wild places fought hard and ended up saving the watershed. Watching all those bears go about their business, surrounded by mountains covered in old growth forest, was a good reminder that we can save the wild places we love if we’re willing to stand up and fight.
Conservation is the only reason that I’m able to live the life that I do. My income mostly comes from guiding natural history film crews, primarily after brown bears, but occasionally I get to work with other wildlife, like wolves and moose. The meat my family eats is basically all wild, with deer and salmon making up the lion’s share. Deer, salmon, brown bears, and the whole Southeast Alaska ecosystem are tied to healthy habitat. And here, old growth forest is the most ecologically valuable habitat. Protecting old growth forest from being clearcut and trying to keep our salmon fisheries productive is key to preserving my lifestyle.
We need to reinstate the Roadless Rule and halt industrial clearcut logging of old growth in the Tongass. We also need to support the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy and long-term protections for the Tongass’s remaining old growth. There’s also a stampede of gigantic open-pit mines being built in British Columbia on rivers shared with Southeast Alaska—these waterways also provide critical spawning habitat for our salmon. Runs are already becoming depleted in the region, and if we lose salmon, we will lose an integral part of the ecosystem.
My food, income, and health all come from wildlife and good habitat. I have two sons—a baby and a two-and-a-half-year-old self-described “big boy man.” I really want those boys and future generations to have similar opportunities to live, work, and hunt the way I do. When my boys are men, I want them to be able to fill their freezers with venison and salmon. I want salmon runs flooding our streams, brown bears trudging ancient trails beneath giant trees, and plenty of deer in the forest. Without those things, Southeast Alaska just wouldn’t be the same.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More