The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp may soon receive the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage site designation. The United States’ National Park Service has filed a notice in Washington, announcing its intention to nominate the refuge for this recognition. Covering more than 400,000 acres in southeast Georgia and stretching towards the Florida state line, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is hailed by conservation groups as one of the last intact blackwater swamps in the world. It serves as a refuge for numerous endangered animal species, including alligators, red cockaded woodpeckers, and stilt-legged wood storks.
According to Kim Bednarek, the executive director of the nonprofit Okefenokee Swamp Park, if the refuge receives the designation, it will join the ranks of iconic American landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. The World Heritage list, which recognizes sites with outstanding universal value, currently includes over 1,100 natural and cultural locations worldwide. However, only 25 places in the United States have received this prestigious recognition, including national parks like the Grand Canyon and significant manmade landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. The most recent addition to the list in the US is a network of ancient Native American ceremonial and burial mounds in Ohio.
The Okefenokee refuge, which encompasses more than 90% of the swamp, is the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. Its diverse wildlife, cypress forests, and flooded prairies attract approximately 600,000 visitors each year. While designation as a World Heritage site would not impose additional restrictions or regulations on the Okefenokee, conservationists argue that it would provide an incentive for governments and local communities to protect and preserve the area. Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director for the Center for Biological Diversity, states that it shows the US’s commitment to safeguarding the site and ensuring its integrity. A final decision from UNESCO regarding the refuge’s nomination is expected in 2026 at the earliest.
(Read more UNESCO stories.)
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