WAYCROSS, Ga. -- The Okefenokee Swamp Park embarked Saturday on its Osprey Project, a public relations effort to make the park just south of Waycross a port through which the world can view the swamp.
The Swamp Park is a nonprofit formed in 1946 to draw tourists to the Waycross area. It has always been a place to see the swamp, its botany and its wildlife from Cowhouse Island, property leased from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
“We just needed our window to be bigger,’’ said William S. Clark III, a Waycross ophthalmologist and chairman of the nonprofit’s board. “We plan a major outreach to people who have come to the swamp and appreciated it.”
The Osprey Project is also aimed at boosting cash flow from the admission, gift shop purchases and donations, on which the park survives, after a string of lean years.
The park is forming a partnership with the Ware County school system to get students involved, will offer a live Internet feed and will take other initiatives to draw attention from around the world and get people to become stakeholders, Clark said.
“It was either shut it down or make it as big as you can. We’re going to make it big,’’ Clark said of the decision to launch the Osprey Project.
The Okefenokee Swamp Park has suffered through drought and devastating fires in 2007 and 2011.
Usually it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Sometimes it was worse.
“When word gets out that the Okefenokee is on fire,’’ the public perception is that it’s the whole 400,000-acre national wildlife refuge, said Martin Bell, general manager of the park on the southeastern side of the swamp.
Skies on the southern end of the swamp 35 miles south can be covered with smoke while the Swamp Park is sitting in bright sunshine with not even a whiff of smoke.
“When the St. Marys River flooded, word got out that that water was coming out of the swamp,” Bell said.
In truth, a few extra inches of water in the enormous swamp can translate to floods in the rivers that drain it.
And that perception has hurt, Bell and Clark said.
They hope broadened visibility will help the park raise the funding it needs to recover from some real — not just perceived — damage.
“We have to raise more money than there is money in this community to be raised,’’ Clark said.
The fires of 2007 and 2011 burned so close to the park, that it was closed weeks at a time. Also, persistent droughts left water in the canals so low, the park couldn’t conduct it’s popular boat tours.
During the huge fires of 2007, a fire that had smoldered near the park flared up in high winds, raced through the park and destroyed 1,000 feet of its boardwalk and damaged its 90-foot observation tower. With the water so low in canals, the park couldn’t conduct boat tours and had no boardwalk to get people into the swamp and its tower, Bell said.
Visitation, which had hovered between 50,000 and 60,000 per year, dropped 25 percent to 33 percent, Clark said. That loss of admission fees sapped the park’s ability to maintain its facilities, he said.
The federal government denied a claim Swamp Park filed for the lost boardwalk so it had to again raise private money.
“It took $35,000 to restore the tower and another $15,000 for the boardwalk,’’ Clark said.
Local donors responded, but what resulted was a less expensive but more adventuresome walk.
The burned boardwalk was several feet above the water and wide enough for people to walk three abreast. It would have cost about $120,000 to put it back like it was. Its replacement, which Bell had seen in short water crossings in other parks, is three feet wide in places and barely six inches above the water.
As Clark likes to say of the replacement, “You’re walking in the swamp. People are actually looking down at what’s around them.”
As for the canals, the water remains low, but the Swamp Park invested in new motors that can run in low water so the tours are back.
Besides that, Bell said, “We’ve got the only observation tower in the Okefenokee.”
Indeed they do for now. But the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge will begin work soon on rebuilding its 4,000-foot boardwalk to the Owls Roost tower, which was burned in 2011. The tower itself also needs some work, but the steel observation tower at Okefenokee Park is fully intact and accessible by boardwalk or boat tour.
The Swamp Park had a special program Saturday night for some of its supporters that included a walk into the swamp under the full moon.
The visitors will also be asked their opinions on he new low boardwalk. Should it stay or should the park go back to its higher version, Clark said.
The park also has its snake, alligator, bear and other wildlife exhibits.
Standing on a boardwalk near the entrance, Bell said, “A lot of places you hope you see an alligator. Here, it’s guaranteed.”
And there is also an exhibit with an even more elusive animal, playful otters.
Among the new attractions is a live honeybee exhibit where bees that gather nectar from the swamp’s always blooming wildflowers crawl in through a long tube from the outside. Behind a glass partition, the worker bees deposit their nectar in a honeycomb and others busily seal it into place. Among the teeming mass of insects, a queen lays eggs.
As the weather cools, the park will resume it’s holiday light shows and other programs.
The message of all of it is, Clark said, “is that the swamp doesn’t belong to anyone of us or the board of directors. It belongs to the world.”