VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University and Okefenokee Swamp Park have joined forces to promote conservation, community and collaboration in South Georgia.
The two entities signed a statement of strategic alliance, announcing the formation of the Okefenokee Swamp Park and Valdosta State University Education and Training Alliance.
Dr. William Clark, chairman of the Okefenokee Swamp Park board of trustees, is described as the driving force behind the Okefenokee Swamp Park and Valdosta State University Education and Training Alliance, according to a university statement.
He said the mutually beneficial partnership provides “a wonderful opportunity to integrate onsite experiences, an authentic education and the ability to conduct research that takes us all to the next level.”
“We all understand how significant the Okefenokee Swamp is to South Georgia,” added Dr. Richard A. Carvajal, president of VSU. “It is clearly one of our top tourism destinations, and it is both an ecological treasure and a national treasure. We are excited to partner with Okefenokee Swamp Park as we use our collective wisdom and innovation to preserve our region’s natural history and natural wonders, promote lifelong learning as a catalyst for individual and societal well-being and contribute to economic and community development efforts across South Georgia.
“We are South Georgia’s institution of higher education, and what happens in this region matters to us,” he added.
VSU and the Okefenokee Swamp have several things in common. Both are committed to:
• protecting South Georgia’s open spaces, natural resources, wild places and wildlife;
• improving the quality of life of all who call South Georgia home; and
• providing experiences that expand the boundaries of current knowledge and facilitate the exchange knowledge.
“This is going to provide great educational opportunities not only for VSU students but also for students throughout the entire country,” U.S. Representative Buddy Carter, District 1 said. “We appreciate this. This is the kind of thing hopefully we will see more of in the future.”
VSU already has a couple of Okefenokee Swamp-related projects in progress.
Michael Lusk, manager of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, recently contacted VSU’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact to request assistance in developing a comprehensive marketing plan for all three main entrances to the Okefenokee Swamp — Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross, Stephen C. Foster State Park in Fargo, and Suwannee Canal Recreation Area in Folkston.
Darrell Moore, executive director of the Center for South Georgia Regional Impact, said the university is in the process of identifying students from various disciplines — marketing, art, mass media and others — for this project, which will kick off this fall under the guidance of Dr. Leisa Flynn, head of VSU’s Department of Marketing and International Business.
“This partnership with VSU is an incredible opportunity to advance the mission of Okefenokee Swamp Park to provide ecological tourism and environmental education that inspires an appreciation for the wildlife, culture, and natural beauty of the ‘Land of the Trembling Earth,’” said Kim Bednarek, executive director of Okefenokee Swamp Park in Waycross. “We look forward to collaborating with VSU students and faculty to curate a strategic marketing plan to increase visitation at each entrance of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and ultimately grow the economic impact to South Georgia and the cities of Folkston, Waycross and Fargo. This unified effort will serve to benefit all the counties, cities, businesses and organizations in the Okefenokee region.”
“The Okefenokee Swamp Park is excited to partner with VSU in our mutual efforts to advance our mission and enhance ecological education about this incredible ecosystem and its cultural history,” Clark added. “We all hope and expect that our collaboration will result in more visitation and even more meaningful understanding of the critters and biodiversity of the Okefenokee Swamp.”
Lusk also contacted VSU’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact about designing a mural for Downtown Folkston. Moore said Evelyn Davis-Walker, a professor in VSU’s Department of Art and Design, and one of her students began work on the design phase of this project this summer.
Carvajal said the Okefenokee Swamp Park and Valdosta State University Education and Training Alliance aligns well with VSU’s focus on providing experiential learning opportunities for students. He said there is real value in creating real-world projects that allow the students to take what they learn in the classroom and put it into practice.
“The strategic alliance made among VSU and Okefenokee Swamp Park is a natural affiliation to benefit both parties,” said Amy Carter, deputy commissioner with the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Rural Georgia Initiatives. “Logistically, with only 70 miles between the two, I see great partnerships being created, especially within the areas of science. I look forward to witnessing these cooperative efforts for the betterment of both entities.”
"The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is pleased to be part of this partnership and appreciates the willingness of Okefenokee Swamp Park to forge new relationships to educate the public about the importance of the Okefenokee Swamp,” Lusk said. “We look forward to working with both the park and the university in furthering the education of the public on the importance of the largest blackwater swamp in North America."
“This new partnership will bring in new resources as well as educational and research opportunities that will continue to put VSU and Okefenokee Swamp Park on the map,” state Senator Tyler Harper of District 7 said. “I appreciate the work of all involved in making this a reality as South Georgia continues to advance the history, ecology, and scientific and educational opportunities of the Okefenokee Swamp.”
Lusk said he and his team are working to get the Okefenokee Swamp listed as a World Heritage Site. He said there are only 12 areas in the United States on that list, and having the Okefenokee Swamp become No. 13 will drive tourism to South Georgia “like nothing else.”
The signing ceremony was conducted virtually due to the global pandemic. Also attending and supporting the announcement were Commissioner Jason Shaw with Georgia Public Service Commission District 1; state Sen. Ellis Black of District 8; state Rep. John Corbett of District 174; state Rep. James Burchett of District 176; and state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia of District 169.