TAMPA — Citizens rallied four years ago to ensure one of Hillsborough County's largest land holdings stayed free of developers' clutches forever.
Since that time, the nearly 13,000 acres in northeastern Hillsborough formerly known as Cone Ranch has remained padlocked from the public.
That changes later this month when the county finally opens a small portion of what is now dubbed the Lower Green Swamp Preserve to public exploration for the first time in decades.
"It's taken a while, but we're finally at a point where we're going to be able to open up part of the land for passive uses like horseback riding and hiking, things of that nature," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who played a role in preservation efforts. "Up until now, the only people who have been able to use the land have been doing so illegally."
County officials are planning a grand opening for the preserve at 10 a.m. Jan. 28. Officially, just 300 to 400 acres in the southeast corner of the property will be opened. It can be accessed from Knights Griffin Road. The land will indeed be open for hiking and horseback riding, the latter a priority of residents who gave input about what kind of public access should be allowed on the property.
In the next three years or so, the county hopes to expand the public-access area to about 1,000 acres, with the possibility of a primitive camping area.
Much of the public area was cleared at some point and planted with slash pine trees. County workers have been and will continue to thin those trees and replace some with more natural species, such as long-leaf pine.
They've been pleased to see their work so far result in native plant life returning to the area as thinning tree coverage allows more sunlight to reach the ground. Visitors should be able to witness the transition from damaged land to something more closely resembling Florida's natural environment.
"They'll be seeing the positive restoration changes first hand and will be able to really experience the beauty," said Forest Turbiville, the county's conservation services division manager.
Much of the preserve was used for ranching and farming for decades, and a portion of it will remain leased to a cattle ranching family. Over those decades, much of the land was scored with canals, providing flood relief for parts of Polk County but effectively draining many of the wetlands that dot the property.
Despite that damage, wildlife abounds and much of the land will remain off limits to people. It will link up to other undeveloped lands owned by other governments, essentially maintaining a wildlife corridor.
Even in the part where the public is allowed, there are plenty of critters to see, including feral hogs, white-tailed deer, Sherman's fox squirrels and bald eagles. A bobcat is known to make an occasional appearance in the part of the preserve that the trails will cross.
County employees have been working to block some of the ditches throughout the preserve in an effort to slow drainage of the property when it rains and restore a more natural flooding and emptying of wetlands. Trails will mostly follow fire roads within the property, meaning they'll be pretty wide.
The former West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, predecessor to the current regional utility Tampa Bay Water, bought the ranch land in 1988. The plan was to eventually pump water from the ground, but federal rules changes made it an unlikely prospect for that use.
The ranch eventually was transferred to the county's water department. In the mid 2000s, former Commissioner Jim Norman suggested turning a part of it into an amateur sports complex that the public protested as a vanity proposal that was ultimately withdrawn.
Then came a proposal from a group of businessmen pitching the idea of letting them subdivide and sell the property to monied interests who would promise to preserve the land, perhaps using it for private hunting camps. Hagan initially championed the idea until environmentalists and other residents rose in protest. The County Commission then got on board with proposals to sell the land to its land preservation program.
That happened in 2010, but the county was all but forced to keep the property fenced off as declining tax receipts forced cutbacks in parks spending. With the economy improving, the county is ready to take an incremental step.
Scott Emery, an ecologist who has spent as much time on the former ranch as anyone and helped craft its management plan as wetlands division manager for the county's Environmental Protection Commission, sounds proud of playing a role in restoring part of it.
"It's kind of like finding a horse that's ill and has mange and nursing it back to where it's a show horse," Emery said. "It's like nursing something back to health."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.