Okefenokee: Trembling with Fire
By: Alison McGee, Coastal Plain Project Director
The vast swamp and forest that spans hundreds of thousands of acres in south Georgia and north Florida came to be called Okefenokee by Native Americans; the word means, “land that trembles when you walk on it.”
The origin of its name rings true today as wildfires flare and smoke rolls deep within this land primeval.
Lightning ignited the fire in early April, and more than 150,000 acres – about a third of the total acreage of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – have been affected so far. Natural fire is part of the cycle of life here – yet with large tracts of private timber land and small towns nearby, federal and state agencies and other partners are working to contain the blaze.
That balance – of letting the natural order of ecosystems carry on while protecting people and property – is not always easy to achieve. But at Okefenokee, collaboration born of practicality and passion is allowing nature to endure while keeping communities safe and the economy growing.
Twenty years ago, area landowners, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the local timber industry, the Georgia Forestry Commission, U.S. Forest Service, and many other partners came together to form the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners, or GOAL, a nationally recognized model for management on private and public lands.
These individuals, agencies and organizations have found common ground in protecting the swamp, the forests and the land surrounding the refuge. They work together to maintain roads and fire breaks to reduce the likelihood of wildfire reaching private lands around the Okefenokee. GOAL also meets regularly to discuss resources, needs and shared responsibilities in preparation for future fires. Perhaps most importantly, at times like today, everybody knows everybody —and the sense of trust that exists allows the focus to be on managing the fire instead of questioning motives.
The Nature Conservancy is proud to be a partner of GOAL; our work here is part of a nine-state initiative to restore longleaf pine. These open, fire-adapted forests with tall, strong trees once spanned millions of acres from Texas to Virginia, including the Okefenokee landscape. Longleaf pine forests declined dramatically as land was converted for agriculture, development and industrial forestry. Only about 4.5 million acres remain today, scattered across the historic range.
Because we work to restore forests around the world, The Nature Conservancy contributes a broader context and scientific expertise to partnerships. Around the Okefenokee, we are mapping areas where longleaf pine can be restored and/or where fuel loads are high to help GOAL partners prioritize where to conduct controlled burns and other wildfire mitigation tactics and where to plant longleaf pine in buffer areas around the refuge. Longleaf pines are more resistant to fire, so this buffer can help protect timber investments when fires occur. And with more longleaf planted, the outlook for threatened native wildlife like gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers and swallow-tailed kites can improve.
We are also putting boots on the ground. This year, a crew trained by the Conservancy through the federal Job Corps program for underserved youth is clearing bridges and roads so equipment can reach the fires safely and quickly. They are removing vegetation from water storage ponds, allowing aircraft fast and clear access to water that can be dumped on fires.
When it comes to a landscape as diverse, complex and economically important as Okefenokee, it takes the work and perspective of many people to keep this place and all who love and rely on it safe and healthy. The research and lessons learned at Okefenokee inform the Conservancy’s work in forests across the Southeast and beyond. And if you’ve never visited this ancient, mysterious part of our state – plan a trip to see the rejuvenation that will occur after the fires are extinguished.