FROM OUR PUBLISHER: On this, we agree: Protect the Okefenokee

It’s not too late to write to your local lawmaker — or the EPD. Urge the agency to deny mining permits.

Credit: Mike Luckovich

Credit: Mike Luckovich

Two weeks ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a front-page editorial calling for Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker Jon Burns to take extraordinary action to protect Georgia’s treasured Okefenokee Swamp and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge from the ambitions of an Alabama mining company poised to begin extracting titanium dioxide, a mineral most commonly used in toothpaste whitener and powdered doughnuts.

The Okefenokee is the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. It is a rare ecological wonder on the fast track to potentially securing status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, alongside places such as the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Grand Canyon.

For five years, Twin Pines Minerals has tried to develop nearly 600 acres on Trail Ridge, the ancient sand dunes that form the eastern boundary of the swamp. In February, despite opposition from the federal government, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division released draft permits for the mine, bringing the project closer to reality.

Environmentalists and lawmakers at the Gold Dome have been feverishly working to pass legislation that would stymie Twin Pines’ plans. On Tuesday, the House passed a bill that may do just that.

The measure, SB 132, would prevent the state’s Environmental Protection Division from granting new dragline surface mining permits for three years. While imperfect in the eyes of some environmentalists, the moratorium would buy time for a more long-term solution. But success is far from guaranteed. Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones must bring the bill to the Senate for consideration and a vote. Should it pass, then Gov. Kemp needs to sign it into law. Thursday is the final day of the legislative session. The clock is ticking.

If you want to know the facts of the debate over the Okefenokee, I’d encourage you to read this comprehensive story by the AJC’s Drew Kann, who has covered the issue extensively, and recently spent several days reporting from Folkston and the surrounding areas.

Since we published our editorial, I have heard from environmentalists, state lawmakers, national lawmakers, Atlanta-based CEOs and leaders of major philanthropic groups, and from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Not one call has supported the mining at Trail Ridge and risking the future of the Okefenokee. Not one. People have provided me lengthy dissertations on property rights, conservation easements and the nuance involved with different types of surface mining. I have learned more about the timber industry than I ever imagined I would. I’ve learned, in excruciating detail, about the legislative horse-trading that has gone on behind the scenes, and I’ve heard varying perspectives on how large a donation lobbyists must make to lawmakers before the donation is deemed significant.

And yet, not one person has said they believe the EPD should approve permits for Twin Pines (or anyone else) to begin mining Trail Ridge.

This is meaningful, because, as I have shared in these monthly notes, our subscribers and our community are fiercely divided about, well, just about everything. Everything but this.

A great egret takes flight at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month. The Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia is the largest wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. (Hyosub Shin /


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The AJC does not often publish editorials on the front page. In recent months, we have waded into public debates when we believed the issues were too important for us to remain on the sideline. Our editorials on commonsense approaches to the epidemic of gun violence, the raging debate over the public safety training center and now the Okefenokee have nothing to do with politics. We’d just like to see the Republicans and Democrats who were voted into office by the people of Georgia take off their party hats and find common ground to solve problems, enrich the lives of Georgians and protect our state’s most precious natural resources.

At a time when dysfunction is the norm, Georgia has an opportunity to set a national example for functional government. Speaker Burns has thrown his support behind the latest compromise bill, but some lawmakers and conservationists fear it will never see the light of day in the Senate. That is an unacceptable outcome for the people of Georgia. Jones needs to bring the bill to a Senate vote and send it to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Kemp has been content to sit on the sidelines of the debate. It’s time for him to get in the game. Kemp should spend some of his significant political capital to urge the legislature to send the moratorium bill to his desk for signature and encourage the EPD to deny Twin Pines’ permits.

The governor has demonstrated a willingness to transcend partisan politics and put the interests of all Georgians first. He stood up to former President Donald Trump, defending the results of Georgia’s election in 2020. And the conservative Republican has forged an important partnership with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat, that has produced real results for our city.

Gov. Kemp has the opportunity in his second term to cement his legacy as an environmental champion and leapfrog his political rivals by urging Senate action and making clear that he wants the legislature to pass a law that will protect the Okefenokee. The governor’s leadership would go a long way toward ensuring the 438,000-acre national treasure — one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands left in the world — remains protected for generations to come.

Most of my monthly notes to you focus on how we are transforming the AJC from a storied 155-year-old newspaper into a modern media company. We’ve outlined our plans to invest in our digital platform and develop new content and products to meet the evolving needs of our community. But the heart of the AJC is and always will be our commitment to fight for our community and work for a better future for the next generation. I wanted to highlight our support of the Okefenokee in this letter in the hope that we might come together to save the swamp.

It’s not too late: Write to your local lawmaker, write to Gov. Kemp, Lt. Gov. Jones and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a vocal supporter of preserving the Okefenokee. You can also write to the EPD and urge the agency to deny the permits. A period of public commentary closes April 9. Let them all know you care more about preserving one of America’s natural wonders than you do about preserving the business interests of an Alabama mining company.

In the words of the great American philosopher Dr. Seuss: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Thank you, as always, for your support of the AJC and our mission.

Until next month …

Keep going,

Andrew Morse