Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Swath of preserve north of Plant City expected to open for hiking, bird-watching


It would be easy to get lost in the Lower Green Swamp Preserve, where caretakers navigate by four-wheel drive, using directions like "Turn left at the PVC pipe" or "See that break in the trees? Go there."

Measuring more than 12,800 acres, or about 20 square miles, the preserve formerly known as Cone Ranch is big enough to hold more than two-thirds of Plant City, its urban neighbor to the south, or almost 40 theme parks the size of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Instead, it is a haven for bald eagles, gopher tortoises, Sherman's fox squirrels, wood storks, sandhill cranes and other Florida species that have flirted with extinction.

The largest single tract in Hillsborough County's chain of wilderness parcels, it takes more than a day to explore and years to get to know.

County officials may soon open a portion to public exploration.

Scott Emery, an ecologist who has overseen the tract for about 25 years, said it may not rival the scenic outposts of other states, but he still has a deep appreciation for the preserve.

Before moving to Florida in 1984, he held jobs in Alaska and his native upstate New York, surrounded by dazzling vistas. But he fell in love with Cone Ranch and its landscape of parched cypress domes dotting sprawling cow pastures.

"The beauty in Florida is subtle," Emery said on a recent tour of the preserve. "We don't have towering mountains and big oak trees. But there's an intensity to life in the wetlands and riverine systems, and even some of the uplands."

• • •

Cone Ranch has been in county ownership since 1988, when officials bought it to develop as a drinking water resource. That idea fizzled after state lawmakers restricted groundwater pumping to protect wetlands, triggering years of local debate over what to do with the property.

Proposals for housing, a sports complex and privately owned conservation tracts met public opposition.

In 2010, county officials agreed to transfer the expanse to Hillsborough's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program for the original purchase price of $12 million. Preservationists rechristened the tract the Lower Green Swamp Preserve.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, an ELAPP subcommittee will meet at the parks department office, 10119 Windhorst Road, Tampa, to go over a draft management plan for the parcel. The meeting is open to the public.

In March, the parks department is expected to schedule a meeting to accept public comment on the plan. Unless major changes are proposed, the plan will be submitted for County Commission approval in April.

Emery, a longtime environmental consultant who recently became the wetlands division director at Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission, drafted the plan. Generally, it calls for continuing a lease arrangement for cattle for the next 15 years and restoring some of the wetlands as money becomes available.

Up to 1,000 acres on the tract's south side are expected to be open for hiking and bird-watching within a year, with entrances on Knights-Griffin Road east of State Road 39.

• • •

Ditched, drained and seeded with grass to support cattle ranching, the Lower Green Swamp Preserve struggles to live up to its name.

Hawks shriek overhead while cows share ponds with wood storks. Dried-out cypress swamps cling to life, cut off from the flows that nature provides through rainfall.

Crippled as it is, the tract still performs a vital service in replenishing the Hillsborough River, a major drinking water source for Tampa, Emery said.

More than a third of the property is wetlands, including about 600 swamps and marshes and two of the Hillsborough's tributaries, the Itchepackesassa and Blackwater creeks.

• • •

That such a piece of earth has remained almost untouched through decades of human population growth and home-building frenzies seems just short of a miracle. That it finally landed in ELAPP hands is a dream come true for many preservationists.

For years, ELAPP advisers would draw up their annual land-buy wish lists with Cone Ranch at the top, only to take it off because the anticipated price tag made it an unlikely acquisition, recalled Ross Dickerson, who manages wilderness tracts for Hillsborough's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

"It was like the forbidden fruit," he said.

Stubbornly, conservationists would drop it to the bottom of the page with an asterisk and a notation: "Cone Ranch will always be the priority."

• • •

Emery has spent decades checking up on Cone Ranch, ever since the 1980s when his job at Tampa Bay Water's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Authority, included developing a well field there to slake the thirst of a growing regional population.

No one is happier than Emery that plans to pump the lifeblood out of Cone Ranch never materialized. He stood in the center of a former cypress slough surrounded by dead, fallen trees and described how it could be if scientists and engineers just add water.

"It's not a valuable ecosystem now," Emery said. "If we put the water back into it, you could have wood storks in here. Amphibians would love it. … You're restoring the food chain."

Swath of preserve north of Plant City expected to open for hiking, bird-watching 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals


    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates


    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears


    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'


    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]