Department of Natural Resources Board elects new chairman

Joe Hatfield, an executive at one of the country’s largest poultry producers, was elected to lead the board by a unanimous vote
Joe Hatfield, the new chairman of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board, is shown during the group's meeting on January 23, 2024.

Credit: Drew Kann

Credit: Drew Kann

Joe Hatfield, the new chairman of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board, is shown during the group's meeting on January 23, 2024.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources board on Tuesday elected Joe Hatfield, an executive at a major Georgia chicken corporation, as its new chairman.

Hatfield, who was elected by a unanimous vote, assumes the role after spending a year as the board’s vice chairman. He is also the vice chairman of the board at Fieldale Farms, one of the country’s largest poultry producers based in northeast Georgia, which his family has owned for more than 55 years.

He succeeds Dwight Davis, a retired senior partner at the law firm King & Spalding, who has served on the board for 14 years and as its chairman for the last 12 months. Davis, who said he is stepping away from the board altogether, thanked his fellow board members and the DNR staff.

“What a pleasure it has been to get to know this state and all of its resources,” Davis said.

The DNR board has 19 members, all appointed by the governor, and wields considerable power to set rules and regulations for managing the state’s air, water, land and state parks. The board also oversees the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Okefenokee mining update

Hatfield takes over as chairman as environmental regulators under the board’s purview are weighing whether to issue permits to a controversial titanium mine planned on the doorstep of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The company behind the project, Twin Pines Minerals, insists that its plan to extract titanium from a 580-acre tract less than three miles from the refuge poses no risk to the Okefenokee. Environmentalists and several prominent hydrologists vehemently disagree, arguing that the mine risks irreparable damage to the fragile swamp ecosystem.

Just over a year ago, state environmental regulators at EPD released the company’s draft mining plan to the public. The agency received thousands of comments in response to the plan, most opposing the project.

At Tuesday’s meeting, multiple board members asked EPD Director Jeff Cown for updates on the agency’s review of the mining plans and the project’s other required permits. Cown said EPD is still working through its responses to comments, which he said would be released publicly if they release draft permits.

Asked to estimate when EPD’s review might be complete, Cown said, “It’s just when they finish with the comments and get them to me.”

As the agency weighs the mine’s permits, a bill that would prevent future mining on portions of the inland dune complex that forms the swamp’s eastern edge — House Bill 71 — is alive again in the General Assembly. Earlier versions of the bill failed to advance out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee in 2022 and 2023.

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has also been tabbed by the federal government as a potential nominee to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List, a prestigious honor reserved for the planet’s most significant natural and cultural sites. But World Heritage nomination and selection is a multi-year process, and experts say 2026 is likely the earliest that the Okefenokee could make the list.