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Debate over USF Forest Preserve heats up as deadline nears for developers

With development ideas due on Monday, the faculty senate is set to take a stand.
Faculty members, students and community members gathered for a May 7 protest against a University of South Florida plan to explore development of a 769-acre preserve north of the Tampa campus. The faculty senate will take a stand May 19 and the deadline for developers to submit ideas is May 24.
Faculty members, students and community members gathered for a May 7 protest against a University of South Florida plan to explore development of a 769-acre preserve north of the Tampa campus. The faculty senate will take a stand May 19 and the deadline for developers to submit ideas is May 24. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published May 18
Updated May 18

For 50 or so people on a Friday evening in early May, the weekend started with a protest at the entrance to the University of South Florida’s Forest Preserve and golf course.

Their target: the USF administrators who recently put out feelers to develop the 769-acre preserve as a possible revenue stream for the university — a move that surprised faculty and students.

“Admin admin you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” the protesters chanted.

“Chop from the top”

“F--- USF.”

The undisturbed land north of the Tampa campus is home to more than 400 plant and animal species, some endangered, and has long served as a massive outdoor classroom for a number of disciplines. It’s also the site of cultural heritage, including burial sites, for indigenous people.

And over the next few days, the growing debate over its fate could intensify.

Related: USF students, faculty balk at idea to develop untouched land near campus

On Wednesday, the USF faculty senate will vote on a resolution to keep the preserve “available to USF students and faculty in perpetuity.” Monday is the deadline for developers to respond to the university’s “request for information” seeking proposals on how the land might be commercially developed.

University officials say they are doing the responsible thing by exploring options they argue could benefit the university and its students. For example, they say, money generated from a ground lease on the property could be invested in an endowment that could fund scholarships, new faculty and research opportunities.

But for many on campus, the process is another example of the USF administration acting without transparency by failing to consult with key players before launching big decisions. Top USF leaders drew criticism last year for the way they announced the closing of the College of Education, only to walk back the idea months later after school superintendents and others inside the university raised objections.

David Lewis, an integrative biology professor at USF, is head of the steering committee that oversees the Forest Preserve and its use for classrooms and research. He didn’t find out about USF’s request for information until an undergraduate student started an online petition.

Lewis wrote a nine-page letter on behalf of the steering committee expressing his deep concerns about the university’s plans.

About 50 people showed up for a May 7 protest against the University of South Florida's plan to explore development of a 769-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land north of campus. The group included students, faculty and other members of the public.
About 50 people showed up for a May 7 protest against the University of South Florida's plan to explore development of a 769-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land north of campus. The group included students, faculty and other members of the public. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]

“The intact natural ecosystems, geological strata, water flows, and human history of the USF Forest Preserve provide many natural benefits, such as improving air and water quality, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, sheltering biodiversity and rare species, and securing Florida’s cultural heritage,” he wrote.

The letter noted that the land was home to a number of “vegetative communities and species of concern,” including gopher tortoises and kingsnakes, and contains artifacts of indigenous peoples.

After that, USF administrators agreed to meet with a group of faculty.

Lewis said David Lechner, USF’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, told faculty members that nothing was set in stone and the university was assessing the value of its assets.

The university would not grant interviews on the substance of the meeting or any other details related to the preserve.

“None of us are naive enough to believe this is all benign,” Lewis said in an interview. “There are certain things that could become revenue streams and others that just aren’t appropriate. ... When you start selling off the actual learning resources we have, then we’re not a university, we’re a merchant.”

After the meeting, USF issued a statement saying funds generated from potential sales could be invested in the university’s endowment. “USF leadership has a responsibility to regularly examine options for the highest and best use of institutional assets,” it said.

The request for information does not require the university to take any action, the statement argued, adding that developers may only be interested in “a portion of the land, such as the golf course and not the Forest Preserve.”

“We recognize that this land has significant value to the university in support of research and academic opportunities in its current use, which is a key consideration in the (request for information) process,” the statement said. “A portion of the property within the forest preserve is designated as federal wetlands and includes protected species. Any proposals received by the university must consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property in order to minimize any environmental impacts.”

At a late April meeting of the Hillsborough County Commission’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, the group unanimously voted to consider purchasing and preserving the land. But some commissioners also expressed concern that preservation should be USF’s responsibility.

Related: RELATED: Hillsborough commissioner seeks to preserve USF land

The parcel was donated in 1957 by Stanton Sanson, according to a graduate student’s thesis chronicling the area in 2005. In his 1964 obituary, Sanson was described as a Miami-based real estate developer and advocate for higher education.

There was talk in the 1970s of using the parcel as a site for co-ed dorms for married students, but that never gained traction, said Andy Huse, USF special collections librarian and historian.

Later, the land was considered as a site for the university president’s house as well as riding trails, but those ideas were thwarted, too, according to a case study compiled by sustainability and integrative biology faculty in 2011 for the National Wildlife Federation.

“It was not initially valued within the university,” the case study said. “However, the university administration was persuaded otherwise when we brought to their attention the high research and teaching value of this land.”

A committee was formed to guide the use of the land, and more than 70 research papers and 20 theses and dissertations across a variety of disciplines have come from the preserve.

Faculty Senate president Tim Boaz said he sensed concern from faculty members about a communication pattern from administrators. “I think people were rightly concerned there was no consultation there,” he said.

Sheridan Murphy, who attended the early May protest on behalf of the group Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality, pointed to recent city reconciliations over the graves of Black people, suggesting similar issues could arise if the preserve were to be developed.

He said the university had a chance to do the right thing and told protesters to differentiate between power and authority.

“They’re not power,” Murphy said of USF officials. “Power is that tree. Power is the Hillsborough River. Power is Hurricane Andrew. They only have the authority we give them. We as human beings have power. We need to use our power to stop their illegitimate authority.”