The awesome Okefenokee Swamp is so intimidating it even resists the avarice of mankind. Developers were willing to abandon it to nature lovers in 1937 but not before they logged most of the ancient 400-900 year old cypress trees. The undrainable labyrinths of swamps, the floating shaky islands of peat, and the frequent uncontrollable fires scared away businessmen who feared they could never make a profit developing this wilderness. Thus we are left with an amazing gem of nearly pristine nature.
The Okefenokee Swamp has an interesting geological history that I’ve already discussed (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/the-geological-and-ecological-history-of-the-okenfenokee-swamp-part-one/) Its current incarnation is just 6600 years old, based on an analysis of peat cores. However, fossil swamp vegetation has been found buried inside Trail Ridge to the east of the swamp. Trail Ridge is a former barrier island that fronted the ocean 1.8 million years ago. This suggests swamp has intermittently occurred in the Okefenokee basin for over a million years, but during glacial cycles the water table drops, and it becomes dry land forest mixed with grasslands and only a few relic marshes.
The frequent peat fires that occur in the Okefenokee basin are impossible for man to extinguish. They are a surprising example of nature defeating man. The policy of the fish and wildlife service is to let fires burn inside the refuge. They do try to protect boardwalks and wildlife viewing towers but were unsuccessful at even this small scale fire defense in 2011. Outside the refuge a 250 mile long Swamp Edge Firebreak has been constructed. For the most part it does prevent the spread of small fires. Neverthelesss, major fires escape the boundaries of the refuge and destroy many square miles of commercial timber.
Satellite image of 2011 Honey Prairie Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp which burned from April 28, 2011-April 12 ,2012 and consumed 318,000 acres. Most wildlife survived. Without fire the Okefenokee would succeed to shrub then forest. Fire here helps maintain diverse habitats and increases biodiversity.
Okefenokee fires are difficult to contain because they are peat fires and can continue burning underground, spreading even if they appear to be extinguished from above. Major fires in the Okefenokee occur cyclically and have been recorded in 1840, 1860, 1884, 1908, 1932, 1954, 1990, 2007, and 2011. The 2007 fire is known as the Georgia Bay Complex Fire and it burned through most of the refuge and into Florida. I smelled smoke from this fire in Augusta, Georgia, hundreds of miles away.
The Georgia Bay Complex Fire burned from April 16, 2007-June 22, 2007 and consumed 600,000 acres. I smelled smoke from this fire in Augusta, Georgia hundreds of miles away.
Most mature trees survive fires. The Okefenokee Swamp, as we know it, depends upon fire. Fire thermally prunes tangled vegetation, giving the refuge its open appearance. The shallow wet prairies, the most characteristic habitat of the swamp, would succeed to less productive shrub bogs without fire. There would be few alligators and wading birds here, if fire didn’t occur.
Chesser’s Prairie in the Okefenokee Swamp. Without fire this open water would become a tangled shrubby bog.
I visited the Okefenokee about 6 years ago, and it was about as disappointing as my trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It wasn’t as crowded, but nevertheless seemed devoid of wildlife. We visited during a drought. Believe it or not, I saw not a single drop of water in the northern part of the refuge. I expected to see lots of egrets and herons and was astonished to see not one. The only wildlife I saw were gray squirrels, big flocks of robins, and signs of wild hogs rooting. They did have a nice zoo with alligators, black bears, and snakes. An otter escaped from its pen and sniffed my shoe. But they were caged animals, not wild. Some day, I’m going to visit the refuge again, but I will make sure it’s not during a drought.