Sharing Lessons Learned

Staff from the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, located in North Carolina and Virginia, has entered into a Sister Protected Area Arrangement with Sebangau National Park in Indonesia. Through this partnership, the two nationally protected areas will work together to share expertise in environmental restoration and the development of ecotourism.


Participants of the Ecotourism Workshop conducted by the USFWS during their last visit to Indonesia, Credit: DOI-ITAP

As exciting as this partnership sounds, you may be wondering why Great Dismal Swamp was chosen to become a “sister” to a national park half a world away. Well, there are actually very good reasons!


Deforestation outside of Sebangau National Park for a palm oil production plantation, Credit: DOI-ITAP

Both Great Dismal Swamp and Sebangau encompass vast peatlands that have historically been drained of water to support timber harvesting operations. Prior to becoming a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, Great Dismal Swamp was owned by timber companies, who created ditches to drain the peatlands, making it easier to remove trees. Similarly, much of the peatlands in Sebangau have been drained through the formation of canals that were created to move timber down river to market. Because the once rich peatland forests have been drained and deforested, both areas have suffered frequent forest fires that have further devastated the area’s ecology.

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Devastation from the 2008 wildfire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Credit: USFWS

Why are wetlands such as peatlands important to conserve? Wetlands provide many direct services to people, like cleaning our drinking water, protecting us from floods, and providing habitat for many species of wildlife. In addition, Great Dismal Swamp and Sebangau are refuges for endangered species. Great Dismal Swamp is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker and the canebreak rattlesnake, while Sebangau hosts the largest orangutan population in any protected area in Indonesia.


A wild orangutan spotted in a peat swamp forest in Indonesia, Credit: Daniel Murdiyarso, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

Peatlands are particularly important to the issue of climate change because they store huge amounts of carbon in their wet soils. Although they only cover about 3 percent of the world’s land area, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all of the trees in the world’s forests combined! When peat soils are drained and exposed to oxygen from the atmosphere, those stores of carbon are released as carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas scientists say is a major cause of global warming. Even more devastating are the amounts of carbon dioxide released if these dry soils are burned in forest fires.


Layers of dry peat soil were destroyed during a wildfire at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, leaving these plant roots exposed, Credit: USFWS

At Great Dismal Swamp, scientists have been working for years to rewet the peatland soils. They have installed weirs, devices that can be used to control water levels, into the ditches throughout the refuge to slow drainage and raise water levels. Through a $3.1 million project supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, 13 additional weirs will be added or replaced at the refuge. By managing water levels, the Service and partners hope to bring back the natural resources that have been lost, along with the benefits they provide, such as protection from floods. Also, because the refuge will be able to raise or lower water levels as needed, the peatlands will become more resilient to the predicted effects of climate change.


A half-moon riser structure installed to slow drainage and re-wet the peat soils at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Credit: USFWS

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A large weir at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, another water control structure used to slow drainage and raise water levels, Credit: USFWS

Sebangau, which was only established as a Federal National Park in 2004, is still in the beginning of its restoration journey. Through the Sister Protected Area Arrangement, the staff at Great Dismal Swamp has committed to helping them navigate through this journey. Great Dismal Swamp personnel will offer training in hydrological restoration and monitoring, endangered species management, and the development of ecotourism in the Park.


USFWS Hydrologist Fred Wurster discussing groundwater well installation with Indonesian conservationists, Credit: DOI-ITAP


Great Dismal Swamp and Sebangau staff “trekking” along an interpretive trail in Sebangau National Park, Credit: DOI-ITAP

Each year for five years, the staffs of the protected areas will meet in person, once at Great Dismal Swamp and once at Sebangau. In addition, an Indonesian intern will spend one month at Great Dismal Swamp this spring, learning how hydrology is managed at the refuge.


Great Dismal Swamp staff travelling by klotoeks, a boat traditional to the area, into Sebangau National Park, Credit: DOI-ITAP

Chris Lowie, refuge manager at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, says he has learned a lot from Indonesian conservationists. “For me, the trip was beneficial to see first-hand that we are not alone in the U.S. at addressing peatland management. It is a very complex system, so learning what folks are doing in other parts of the world is useful for our management strategies as well.”


Chris Lowie (Refuge Manager, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge) and Adib Gunawan (Manager, Sebangau National Park) at the Partnership Signing Ceremony, Credit: DOI-ITAP

This partnership is just one example of how the Service is committed to addressing environmental restoration on a global scale. By creating and maintaining partnerships across the world, we hope to contribute toward true and lasting impacts to Earth’s natural resources, for the benefit of all.

To learn more about Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, please visit their website and Facebook page.

To learn more about Sebangau National Park, please visit their Facebook page.

The sister protected area partnership between Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Sebangau National Park was signed through the United States Department of Interior (DOI) to strengthen management of national parks in Indonesia. The DOI International Technical Assistance Program (ITAP) is partnering with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to implement the project, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Feature photo credit: Exotissimo Travel

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