Pinhook Swamp: A Diamond of the Rough

Posted on Monday, May 9th, 2005 at 7:38 am by Chelsea Green Publishing

The rediscovery in Arkansas a couple of weeks ago of the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to have been extinct for more than 60 years, has renewed public interest in the protection of land that, at a cursory glance, may be unglamorous but is essential habitat to threatened species…

… In northern Florida, smack up against the southern border of Georgia, lies Pinhook Swamp, a partially protected link at the southern end of a chain of national and state forests, wildlife refuges and recreation areas almost 90 miles long. The chain reaches well into the Peachtree State, ending at the 15,000-acre Dixon Memorial State Forest.

In Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, award-winning author Janisse Ray (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood) describes her introduction to Pinhook and to those who have struggled for decades to preserve and restore it — a 20-year battle to link a patchwork of protected areas, including Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Osceola National Forest in Florida. Ray describes “the sad and happy of it,” including its heroes, such as activist Larry Thompson, who spent 23 years with the National Audubon Society before dedicating his life to saving Pinhook Swamp.

Pinhook’s story is the sadly familiar tale of a delicate environment undisturbed for untold eons until the White Man arrived. In simple but lyrical language, Ray reviews the history of the place — Indians annihilated or driven off, land annexed by the state and sold to a canal company for a pittance. The loggers came in, clear-cut the place, and moved on.

Then, providentially, Jean Harper, an acquaintance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited the area. In 1937, she persuaded Roosevelt to set aside Okefenokee Swamp as a wildlife refuge under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That’s the short version.

Surrounded by a well-tamed landscape of farms, villages, small-town industry — and roads, lots of roads — this delicate enclave of wild places is definitely in better shape than it was a generation ago. Despite having lived for years in an isolated cabin in a remote Appalachian ravine, Ray was unprepared for the diversity of wildlife she saw on her first visit to pinhook: deer, blue herons, egrets, rare turtles, alligators.

Ray includes poems, a Native American blessing and italicized reflections on the land’s fragmentation. She candidly admits that to human eyes, much of Pinhook is “170,000 acres of dreary dismal”: mucky, bug-infested and stagnant. Therein may lie its greatest hope: The best thing that can happen to a landscape is for people to find it useless.

Seventy percent of this area — more than 750,000 acres, with Pinhook roughly in the middle — has been protected “in perpetuity” over the years by various acquisitions and easements. (That’s the short version, too.) Its protectors seek to preserve still more, with a goal of nearly 1 million acres. Ray exults over the glories nature might be persuaded to work on such undisturbed land: a return of river otters, sandhill cranes, red wolves, whooping cranes, even Florida panthers.

Joining the areas together into an uninterrupted whole is of more than symbolic importance, and “fragmented” is more than a poetic term. It has a specific, important meaning to ecologists and wildlife biologists. When a species accustomed to epochs of uninterrupted passage throughout an ecosystem finds itself cut off — by development of one kind or another — from other parts of its habitat, havoc can result. In terms of acreage modified, it doesn’t take much fragmentation to cripple a habitat; even a footpath can disrupt the native species’ rhythms and needs.

In fact, the most important lesson to be taken away from Pinhook may be the pivotal importance of fragmentation. We anthropods may protect 10,000 acres here, 15,000 acres there, and feel pretty good about ourselves. But if it doesn’t make sense to the hard-wiring of the creatures that have dwelt on those acres for tens of thousands of years, there may be less to celebrate than we think.

Pinhook recounts no shortage of failures over the years: An attempt begun in 1981 to reintroduce the Florida panther has been, basically, a flop. A few isolated specimens of this magnificent, once-plentiful predator survive, but it takes 500 panthers in three separate breeding stocks to assure their survival. The panther is still loathed and feared by many locals, and the roads that crisscross its habitat are ribbons of killing field — particularly for the young cats. A stable population of 500 seems but a pipe dream.

Ray can’t resist quoting, at one point, Okeefenokee’s arguably most famous and beloved denizen: the comic-strip opposum Pogo, created by the late Walt Kelly. Staring one day at a trash-strewn area of his home, Pogo uttered his most enduring words: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It’s tempting to see the battle for the defragmentation of the wildlife corridor that includes Pinhook Swamp as well on its way to being won; a few million more dollars, Thompson says, would completely the acquisition of the remaining gaps in the chain. But most of this land remains in the hands of a few private landowners. They have no use for it but, human nature being what it is, are disinclined to just give it away. Somebody has to buy it, and somebody has to come up with the money.

Don’t wait for a phone call from the White House.

Pinhook is a story of neither success nor failure overall. Ray ponders the questionable true meaning of “perpetuity”; laws can be changed; covenants can be broken — and often are. Successive federal administrations have long since made a mockery, for example, of the the founding principles of the National Forest System — which is supervised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture?

Agriculture is not about habitat — it’s about harvests.

If the largest oil field ever found turns up smack-dab in the center of Pinhook Swamp — well, that’s when we’ll find out what “perpetuity” really means.

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