A wildfire which began with a lightning strike near the center of the Refuge on May 5, 2007 eventually merged with another wildfire which had begun near Waycross, Georgia on April 16 due to a tree falling on a power line. By May 28, more than had burned in the region, or more than 900 square miles (2300 km²).
Nearly 400,000 people visit the refuge each year, making it the 16th most visited refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. In 1999, the economic impact of tourism in Charlton, Ware, and Clinch Counties in Georgia exceeded $67 million. The refuge has a staff of 16 with a fiscal year 2005 budget of $1,451,000. The refuge also administers the Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Native Americans inhabited Okefenokee Swamp as early as 2500 BC. Peoples of the Deptford Culture, the Swift Creek Culture and the Weeden Island Culture occupied sites within the Okefenokee. The last tribe to seek sanctuary in the swamp were the Seminoles. Troops led by General Charles R. Floyd during the Second Seminole War, 1838-1842, ended the age of the native americans in the Okefenokee.
The Suwanee Canal Company purchased 238,120 acres (963 km²) of the Okefenokee Swamp from the State of Georgia in 1891 to drain the swamp for rice, sugar cane, and cotton plantations. When this failed, the company began industrial wetland logging as a source of income. Captain Henry Jackson and his crews spent three years digging the Suwannee Canal 11.5 miles (18.5 km) into the swamp.
Economic recessions led to the company’s bankruptcy and eventual sale to Charles Hebard in 1901. Logging operations, focusing on the cypress, began in 1909 after a railroad was constructed on the northwest area of the swamp. More than 431 million board feet (1,020,000 m³) of timber were removed from the Okefenokee by 1927, when logging operations ceased.
The Okefenokee Preservation Society, formed in 1918, promoted nationwide interest in the swamp. With the support of State and local interests and numerous conservation and scientific organizations, the Federal Government acquired most of the swamp for refuge purposes in 1936.
In 1937, with Executive Order 7593 (later amended by Executive Order 7994), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the refuge, designating it as "a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife." The establishment of Okefenokee Refuge in 1937 marked the culmination of a movement that had been initiated at least 25 years earlier by a group of scientists from Cornell University who recognized the educational, scientific, and recreational values of this unique area.
In 1974, to further ensure the protection of this unique ecosystem, the interior sections of the refuge were designated a National Wilderness Area.
Okefenokee NWR has an approved acquisition boundary of 519,480 acres (2,102 km²), which is 123,480 acres (500 km²) larger than its current area. Approximately 371,000 acres (1,500 km²) of the Okefenokee Swamp wetlands are incorporated into the refuge. 353,981 acres (1,432 km²) within the swamp were designated as the Okefenokee Wilderness, a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System when the Okefenokee Wilderness Act was passed in 1974, making it the third largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River.
The Okefenokee Swamp is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp now lies 103 to above mean sea level. Peat deposits, up to thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that trees and surrounding bushes tremble by stomping the surface. Native Americans named the area \"Okefenokee\" meaning \"Land of the Trembling Earth\". Swamp habitats include open wet \"prairies,\" cypress forests, scrub-shrub vegetation, upland islands, and open lakes.
The Okefenokee Swamp is one of the world's largest intact freshwater ecosystems. It has been designated a Wetland of International Importance by the United Nations under the Ramsar Convention of 1971. The swamp is compared through research to wetlands worldwide. It is world-renowned for its amphibian populations that are bio-indicators of global health. Water from the Suwannee River Sill area is used as a standard reference by scientists throughout the world.
The slow-moving waters of the Okefenokee are tea-colored due to the tannic acid released from decaying vegetation. The principal outlet of the swamp, the Suwannee River, originates in the heart of the Okefenokee and drains southwest into the Gulf of Mexico. The swamp’s southeastern drainage to the Atlantic Ocean is the St. Mary’s River, which forms the boundary between Georgia and Florida.
The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas of non-forested habitat. Prairies cover about 60,000 acres (240 km²) of the swamp. Once forested, these expanses of marsh were created during periods of severe drought when fires burned out vegetation and the top layers of peat. The prairies harbor a variety of wading birds: herons, egrets, ibises, cranes, and bitterns.
Refuge staff and volunteers work to preserve the natural qualities of the swamp, provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, and provide recreational opportunities for visitors. They also conduct prescribed burns in upland areas; thin forests, create wildlife openings, plant longleaf pines; and monitor, manage, and improve wildlife populations and habitat.
The Okefenokee is a rainfall-dependent system, and when periods of drought occur, the area becomes susceptible to wildfire. A 20/30 year cycle of drought and fire has allowed the Okefenokee to exist as the unique wetland it is. These periods cause changes in the abundance of certain plants (more grasses growing in exposed areas,) the nesting success of certain wading birds (failure in extreme drought), and the location of some species of wildlife (fish migrate into deeper lakes and channels and are followed by predators.)
With its varied habitats, the Okefenokee has become an area known for its abundance of plants and animals. There are 621 species of plants growing in the swamp. Animals include 39 fish, 37 amphibian, 64 reptile, 234 bird, and 50 mammal species. The Okefenokee Swamp is world renowned for its amphibian populations that are bio-indicators of global health.
The swamp habitat also provides for threatened and endangered species, such as Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Wood Storks, Indigo Snakes, [polyphemus|gopher tortoise]s and a wide variety of other wildlife species.
There are opportunities for hiking, hunting, fishing, canoeing, boating, photography and wildlife observation.