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."