Red-headed Woodpecker, White Ibis, Swallow-tailed Kite. Photos by Stephen Ramsden.
Submitted via electronic mail on 6/28/23
June 28 2023
Office of International Affairs
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20240
Re: U.S. Nominations to the World Heritage List; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge [88 Fed. Reg. 37,270 (June 7, 2023); NPS-WASO-OIA-DTS-35557]
Dear Mr. Putnam,
On behalf of Georgia Audubon members across the state, we are writing today to encourage you to nominate the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. At a time when the Nation’s wetlands are more at risk than they have been in decades, nominating the Okefenokee—the largest blackwater wetland ecosystem in North America—would send a strong signal of the Biden Administration’s commitment to protecting and honoring these critical ecosystems. As outlined in this letter, the Okefenokee is a world-renowned wetland that unquestionably deserves to be the next U.S. nomination to the World Heritage List.
The Okefenokee Swamp’s 438,000 acres are a diverse ecosystem that provides critical habitat for both resident and migratory bird populations, as well as many other plant and animal species. A recent study published in the journal Science revealed that we have lost more than three billion birds since 1970.
Georgia Audubon’s mission is to build places where birds and people thrive. We fulfill our mission through education, conservation, and community engagement. With more than 2,300 members and more than 5,000 National Audubon Society members from across the state, Georgia Audubon represents a broad constituency united by a desire to protect birds and other wildlife. Our constituents include Georgia residents, frequent visitors, and concerned citizens who understand the significance of the Okefenokee Swamp to the more than 200 bird species, including Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Wood Storks, Bachman’s Sparrows, and many other bird species that winter, breed, migrate through, or live year-round in the Okefenokee Swamp.
Georgia Audubon is also a proud member of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance. As the Alliance explained in comments submitted in January 2021, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge should be the United States’ next nomination because it demonstrates Outstanding Universal Value that deserves international acclaim and protection. Okefenokee is one of the world’s largest naturally driven freshwater systems and is also the source of two rivers. It is world-renowned for its wildlife diversity, which is supported by a mosaic of habitats ranging from diverse wetlands to stately longleaf pine uplands. The Refuge offers essential habitat to thousands of species, including 48 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 33 species of fish, 101 species of reptiles and amphibians, and as many as 1,000 species of moths.
Some of these species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, and alligator snapping turtle, are rare and endangered. Beneath the Okefenokee’s dark waters lie deep, undisturbed peat formations that preserve critically valuable information about environmental conditions over the past 5,000 years. The Okefenokee Swamp is also part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation ancestral homeland with great cultural significance.
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s Outstanding Universal Values are in an
exceptionally good state of conservation and adequately protected as part of a National Wildlife Refuge and Congressionally designated Wilderness Area. Thus the Okefenokee clearly meets the World Heritage Committee’s requirements for Integrity and Protection.
Furthermore, the Refuge and a nonprofit private partner, Okefenokee Swamp Park, are ready to prepare a nomination, and the Alliance and its organizational members, including Georgia Audubon, remain prepared to offer our collective knowledge, expertise, and resources in furtherance of those efforts. The Alliance is also dedicated to continued advocacy for conservation and protection of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed support for protecting the Okefenokee has only grown over the last few years.
From the local gateway communities around the Refuge to visitors from around the world, more than 150,000 comments have been sent to government officials at the local, state, and federal level in support of protecting the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Likewise, the United States is in a stronger position to improve relations with the World Heritage Committee by paying dues and arrearages. Late last year Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2023 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, which provided robust funding for the State Department’s Contributions to International Organizations budget, which may be used to fund UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee. Congress also authorized the President to waive longstanding restrictions on contributions to UNESCO. In early June, a delegation of U.S. diplomats delivered a letter to UNESCO seeking readmission in July and committing to repay membership arrearages over the ensuing years.
Given Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s qualifications—and the Refuge’s readiness to prepare a nomination—we urge the National Park Service Office of International Affairs to promptly authorize the preparation of a World Heritage nomination for the Refuge.
Thank you for your consideration. Should you require any additional information, please reach out to me via email at Jared.Teutsch@georgiaaudubon.org.
Birds Georgia is building places where birds and people thrive.