This huge cypress tree, estimated to be 700 years old, stands in the state-owned Murff Tract, a swamp in the Lower Altamaha River flood plain in McIntosh County. (Charles Seabrook)

Don’t ‘drain the swamp,’ protect it

“Drain the swamp” is a catch-all slogan we’re hearing a lot of these days, a metaphor for cleaning up the political mess in Washington.

The problem is that it gives swamps a bad name.

Indeed, some people view swamps as dark, shadowy and mysterious, metaphors for moral decadence. But, to nature lovers like me, swamps are magical — places of peace, tranquility, otherworldly beauty — redolent of fertile earth and rich in wildlife.

My spirit soars, for instance, when I see 90-foot-tall bald cypresses with massive trunk bottoms flared out in huge buttresses, standing ramrod straight and reflected in inky black swamp water. It’s what draws me to the South’s magnificent, cypress-filled wetlands — the Okefenokee in Georgia, Dismal in Virginia, Congaree in South Carolina and Corkscrew in Florida.

Most of our big swamps and related bottomland hardwood wetlands occupy the broad flood plains of our great alluvial rivers, such as the Savannah, Ocmulgee and Altamaha in Georgia. Such rivers begin in the mountains or hilly Piedmont and flow across the Coastal Plain to the ocean.

Their riverine swamps and related wetlands support amazing plant and animal diversity. They regulate river flow, help prevent flooding, filter out pollution and sequester carbon. They recharge aquifers, provide crucial habitat and food for fish, and contribute tons of nutrients that nourish coastal salt marshes downstream.

Swamps also are extremely important for migratory birds, providing shelter, rest and refueling stops for the travelers.

But, one of the South’s greatest ecological tragedies over the past two centuries has been the draining of millions of acres of riverine wetlands for pine plantations, agriculture and timber. The huge loss caused the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker and other species.

Instead of “drain the swamp,” our vow should be “protect the swamp.”

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Center astronomer: The moon will be last-quarter Thursday. Mercury is low in the east at dawn. Venus and Mars are in the west at dusk and set about two hours later. Jupiter rises out of the east around midnight and will appear near the moon Wednesday night. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.

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