TAMPA — The Lower Green Swamp Preserve in far northeastern Hillsborough County is a stomping ground for some of Florida's rarest critters, from wood storks to gopher tortoises and Sherman's fox squirrels.
One species is not so common in a state otherwise teeming with them: humans.
That changes next year.
Hillsborough County commissioners last month accepted a management plan for what was formerly known as Cone Ranch, more than 12,800 acres of largely undeveloped Florida wilderness. One major highlight of the plan includes opening a portion of the land — as much as 1,000 acres — to people sometime next year, possibly by September.
"I hope a lot of people take advantage of it," said county administrator Mike Merrill. "It's such a spectacular place that you almost can't believe we've preserved it."
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Timing depends on how quickly the county can hire or place a half-dozen or so employees there to cut trails, rebuild a bridge or two over creeks and canals, clear parking areas and generally make the place safe to explore. That can't begin until commissioners formally approve next year's budget, which happens next month.
That's considered pretty much a formality at this point, since commissioners have already vetted the parks' part of the budget and raised no red flags over plans for the preserve. County officials imagine a time soon when the preserve will become a popular destination for hikers, birders and others whose idea of a good time is getting far from the madding crowd.
"It's a spiritual kind of place," Merrill said.
Parks officials have already been talking to horseback riders about making room for them to trot. They haven't yet been contacted by off-road bicycling groups, but given the work of volunteers to clear and maintain bike trails at other parks, they expect to hear from people willing to chip in to carve paths.
"We haven't talked to anyone yet," said County Parks, Recreation and Conservation director Mark Thornton, speaking of bike club members. "But when we develop trails, that will be included."
Camping isn't penciled into the master plan. But primitive camping — tents only, not recreational vehicles — could get consideration later, said Scott Emery, an ecologist who wrote the master plan. He has overseen the property for 25 years and is now the wetlands division director for the county's Environmental Protection Commission.
The portion of the park that would be opened to the public would be in its southeast corner, with entrances planned along Knights-Griffin Road east of State Road 39. Public access would spread north and west.
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As its name suggests, the Lower Green Swamp Preserve is dotted with wetlands, and all manner of animal life makes its home on the property. Packs of feral hogs root throughout the preserve, turkeys preen and bald eagles patrol the sky.
The master plan, which spans 40 years, eventually foresees an expansion of public access. But much of the property, particularly the northern parts, is anticipated to remain off-limits to most people, linking with other publicly owned lands to form a long wildlife corridor.
Much of the western portion of the property is leased to a cattle-ranching family and as a sod farm. The acreage of those operations will shrink over time, but for now they will remain. The farmers help manage the land and the cattle attract a food source for eagles.
"Quite frankly, I've watched the eagles take out enough of the cattle egret to know that they rely on them," Emery said.
Much of the land has been used for cattle ranching for decades. West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, the predecessor to the region's water utility, Tampa Bay Water, purchased the land in 1988 hoping someday to pump water from the ground below it.
The property was ultimately transferred to the county's water department, though Tampa Bay Water retains rights to pump water, something not likely because of changes in federal laws.
In the mid 2000s, former Hillsborough County commissioner Jim Norman proposed turning a portion of the property into an amateur sports complex. The proposal attracted widespread opposition.
Later, a group fronted by businessman Ken Jones, more recently known as the head of the host committee for the Republican National Convention, floated a proposal to subdivide the land into six parcels and sell it off to wealthy investors who would pledge to never to develop it. That plan also drew heated public resistance.
But it also spurred a proposal to transfer the property into the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, ensuring it remains public in perpetuity and out of the hands of developers. Commissioners in 2010 approved using $12 million from ELAPP money to pay its own water department.
This happened as the county remained financially strapped, and county officials cautioned the public not to get too worked up about getting access to what was then still known as Cone Ranch. The county was actually cutting its parks staff dramatically and didn't have people to work there and likely wouldn't for many years.
"When we acquired Cone Ranch, I was on the record as saying we don't have the staff to open it to the public," Thornton said.
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In 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved an extension of the ELAPP program, for which property owners pay a small portion of their tax dollars. Money left from the prior iteration of ELAPP was set aside.
This year, Merrill proposed using some of that money, about $1.2 million, to pay a small staff to work on the property and another $3 million to begin restoration of wetlands drained by canals dug decades ago.
"I hope a lot of people take advantage of it," Merrill said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.