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Rain Welcomed at Drought-Plagued Swamp

July 23, 1991

FOLKSTON, Ga. (AP) _ Above-average rainfall has been good for alligators, mosquitoes and boaters this year in the Okefenokee Swamp, which last year endured its worst drought since the 1940s.

The rain, though, hasn’t been much help to fishing enthusiasts.

Water levels in the south Georgia swamp have reached a 50-year high, and the 396,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge already has exceeded its average yearly rainfall total of 53 inches, said refuge official Larry Mallard.

″The water and lack of water in the swamp is part of the cycle we go through,″ Mallard said. But, he said, ″it’s ironic that we went from one extreme last year to another this year.″

Water levels last year declined to a 36-year low when a drought dropped the total rainfall to only 38.18 inches, he said. A forest fire last fall burned 21,000 acres in the refuge and threatened to spread to nearby private property.

Dozens of firefighters battled the blaze until a tropical storm dumped 6.75 inches of rain in the swamp, Mallard said.

While such fires threaten private property, the swamp needs them to survive, officials say.

″Without fires, the swamp will eventually grow up and become a forested bog,″ Mallard said. ″It would lose its waterfowl, wading birds and fish.″

Still, the high water is a welcome change, said Okefenokee Swamp Park assistant manager Jimmy Spikes.

″I think the alligators were tickled to death to get it,″ he said. ″Some of them had to learn to swim all over again because they weren’t used to it.″

High water isn’t helping those who like to fish. Pete Griffin, a ranger at nearby Stephen Foster State Park, said the fish population was reduced by last year’s drought.

″Fishing is ridiculous. They’re not biting,″ he said.

Refuge officials banned fishing in the swamp from September to May 25, Griffin said. Fishing normally is allowed year-round.

The rain has saturated the ground, leaving puddles that provide breeding places for mosquitoes, Griffin said.

The park has had to cancel its two-hour deep swamp boat tours for the past eight years because of low-water levels, but not this year.

It also offers 30-minute boat tours, wildlife exhibits, rattlesnake demonstrations, a 90-foot observation tower and a homestead that depicts early pioneer life in the swamp.

About 90,000 visited the swamp park last year, and attendance is expected to be higher this year, he said. A total of 400,000 people visit the refuge in a typical year.

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