Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for The Rolling Stones and cofounder of MNN, interviews Skippy Reeves, manager of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and takes a tour of an amazing swamp. (Steve Bransford/Terminus Films)

National Wildlife Refuge series:


Chuck: Okay, guys. With me is Skippy Reeves. Now, Skippy was the manager here at the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge for 13 years?
Skippy: Thirteen years.

Chuck: Long time. Lots of experience. He knows this place inside and out, every inch?

Skippy: Probably not. But pretty close.

Chuck: [laughs] Okay. He’s gonna take us on a tour of the Okefenokee and we’ll see what it’s all about. You ready?

Skippy: Yeah, let’s do it.

Chuck: All right, man. Let’s go.

Skippy: The swamp itself is a bottom of the old ocean when the ocean went over as far as Valdosta, Ga., and it receded out to where it is now. It’s a prairie. You know, you think a prairie is about not having any water on them, but here, our prairies are wet. But it still looks like the western kind of prairie, particularly when it gets certain grasses come up. Look at these little cypress here. There’s usually an alligator. When I’ve given tours, there’s an alligator hung out right here. I can just about count on him.

Chuck: Oh man. Skippy, wow. Look at this, man. The Okefenokee. This is so amazing. What a unique part of America we are right here, and first of all, give us a little overview of this big old swamp. How big an area are we talking about?

Skippy: Well, the refuge itself is about a little over 400,000 acres. The entire swamp area is about 450,000 acres. So, the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t own the entire swamp, but it owns most of it. This is one of the most diverse places in the United States. We’ve got some of the highest reptile and amphibian populations that exist anywhere. We’ll have the black bear and white-tailed deer. But more importantly, we have an endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker, which, that drives most of the upper management that goes on for the refuge.

Chuck: How is that population doing? I know that’s been an issue around the South for a long time, you know, from all the way over to Texas and here in Georgia and Southern states. Is the woodpecker making a pretty good comeback?

Skippy: At the turn of the last century, all of us in the Southeast went through a cut-out and get-out period of time, where most of the forests were cut. They were not replanted. Animal populations that depended on mature pine species then vanished, or were limited to very small pockets of older growths. The red cockaded populations — this is a recovery site. We actually have brought birds in from other places to start recovering the population.

Chuck: And you do the artificial nests?

Skippy: Do the artificial nests in the trees, monitor populations, all the birds are tagged with leg bands, so we know every bird that’s here.

Chuck: I think most people, when they see a swamp like this, the first thing that comes to mind is alligators. Talk about the gators here. There must be a strong population.

Skippy: There is. This is one of the — back many years ago, when we almost eliminated the alligator populations, this is one of the last strongholds in the southeast Georgia, north Florida area. You know, I don’t know the numbers of alligators here, but the populations are very healthy. We have had research done in the past, actually gathered eggs for different kinds of tests on them, whether it be mercury or reproductive viability, those things, and alligator populations are very good. As a matter of fact, that’s the icon of the swamp. When you think of Okefenokee Swamp, you think of alligators. I mean, that’s what you think of, so ...