TURES COLUMN: The benefits of making the Okefenokee Swamp a world heritage site

Published 9:30 am Thursday, March 16, 2023

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There’s strong bipartisan support for making the Okefenokee Swamp a World Heritage Site, which would become the 25th such site in America achieving this designation.  Such protection for the swamp could pay off in a big way for the surrounding counties in Georgia and Florida, as other similar World Heritage Sites have done.

During World War II, totalitarians like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo didn’t seem to mind blasting any historic site, or put soldiers in one and daring the Allies to attack.  Postwar Allies entrusted UNESCO to designate what could and should be preserved.  In America, this means our Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, as well as natural sites like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains and cultural places like the Cahokia Mounds, Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde.

To determine the value of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), my undergraduate researchers (Daniel Cody, Marco Compton, Cooper Dolhancyk, Parker Floyd, Hannah Godfrey, Nicole Morales, Paul Ramsay, Emaleigh Turner and Jenna Pittman) and I used the U.S. Census Bureau data to look at each of the 20 non-urban World Heritage Sites, and the average of the counties (or relevant units) where such a natural or cultural site is located.  

We then compared these WHS counties to a sample of non-urban counties sharing a border with a park county.

Is there an economic benefit to having a World Heritage Site?  Our data shows that counties (or relevant units) have an average median household income per capita (2017-2021 average, in 2021) of $59,920.  For those nearby without a WHS, that same income data shows only $54,357.

We also compared data on the total retail sales per capita.  The average of counties with a World Heritage Site is $12,803, more than the $10,824 for counties and other relevant economic units without a WHS.  Finally, my students and I looked at poverty rates for WHS and non-WHS counties (and other relevant units).  Those with a World Heritage site average a poverty rate of 16.75%, as compared to 18.35% for counties and relevant political units without a WHS.

The three Georgia counties and one Florida county where the Okefenokee is located only have an average median household income of $48,630 and total retail sales per capita of only $9,986.  Moreover, the average poverty rate for the four is 22.23%.  This region could clearly benefit from the World Heritage Site publicity, tourism dollars, and economic benefits for those nearby. 

These undergraduate researchers from my research methods class also looked at tourist visits for 23 World Heritage Sites, compared to other national parks and monuments which lack the WHS designation.  We found that the average World Heritage Site (including some of the urban ones) receives 2,019,464 visitors.  That compared with an average of 1,621,939 visitors for a sample of non-World Heritage Sites, a sample which includes some big names like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Denali, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Diamond Head, Ruby Falls and Grand Teton.

Imagine if the Okefenokee counties were to have another 400,000 visitors, or if its counties happened to earn $11,000 more per household, or $3,000 more in retail sales per person, or have the possibility of 25% less poverty, and how this could economically help the region.  That’s what may happen if the swamp along the Georgia-Florida border had the publicity of a World Heritage Site.  

If you’re a Georgia resident, visit the site https://okefenokeeworldheritage.org/, contact your legislator (Elected Officials | USAGov) and see how you can help.