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This National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 162,000 hectares (about 400,000 acres) embracing 92% of the Okefenokee Swamp, a large hydrologically intact swamp that is the source of two rivers, one that flows into the Atlantic and the other into the Gulf of Mexico. The Refuge also has extensive and essentially undisturbed peat deposits.
Okefenokee is one of the world's largest naturally driven freshwater ecosystems with a diversity of habitat types, including 21 vegetative types. The Refuge's fauna is also renowned worldwide for its diversity of amphibians and reptiles, mammals, birds, fishes, and invertebrates and perhaps as many as 1,000 species of moths. Unlike many other significant wetland areas, the swamp is the source of rivers rather than their recipient, as in a delta, and therefore escapes most disturbances to natural hydrology and water flow. The Refuge's undisturbed peat beds store valuable information on environmental conditions over the past 5,000 years and are a significant source of information related to global changes.
Though past logging took its toll on parts of Okefenokee, the site's ecological integrity has improved significantly through on-going protection and an active restoration program. Expanded regional water demand on the aquifer is a source of concern. Management has promoted natural processes to benefit the landscape, and human manipulation of the landscape is used primarily to restore native vegetative communities. The planned acquisition and restoration of the upland pine landscape around the refuge will gradually enhance management options and provide a buffer from outside influences.
In contrast to the Everglades and many other wetlands around the world, Okefenokee is hydrologically much more intact. This is mainly because it is the origin of waterflows, rather than their destination; in this critical respect, it is unlike Everglades. The Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia has similar habitats but has been significantly influenced by human activity that changed its waterflows and essentially destroyed half of it. Brazil's Pantanal (on the World Heritage List) is larger and has more nutrients but is in a delta. The other principal peat deposits around the world such as the Flow Country of Scotland, Kapuatai Peat Dome in New Zealand, and Indonesia's Berbak Nature Reserve are different in character and in their collection of species; they have also been more impacted by human activity.