Hillsborough County wants to purchase the USF Forest Preserve and is moving forward with its offer
An advocate with Save USF Forest Preserve doesn’t think the university is willing to sell the land, although she hopes Hillsborough County’s interest in preserving it reinforces their efforts.
Officials in Hillsborough County said a 500-acre piece of undeveloped property in Tampa belonging to the University of South Florida is eligible for its land-buying program. The county became interested in preserving the land after USF officials asked for proposals to develop it in April.
The USF Forest Preserve, off Fletcher Avenue and adjacent to the university's Tampa campus, is used as a natural classroom to many in the Department of Integrative Biology.
That's why students and faculty are trying to protect it from development. They reached out to government leaders to save the property, which includes wetlands and sandhill habitat.
Hillsborough County commissioners were interested and referred the property to the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
Members of the program released an assessment this month stating that the preserve meets the criteria to be purchased.
The document said the land is a critical component of the wildlife greenway corridor that extends from Wilderness Conservation Park to Cypress Creek Nature Preserve. It also cited threatened and endangered plant and animal species that habituate there.
Jeannie Mounger, an organizer of the Save USF Forest Preserve campaign, said she isn’t convinced the university will sell.
“I think it is unlikely that the county would actually acquire the property. However, I think having ELAPP, and by extension the county, rule in this way that the conservation value of this site is unequivocal is very important in our fight to protect the preserve,” Mounger said.
“It says to the university that here is an established independent body that is saying, much the same that we are saying, that this site needs to be preserved.”
Hillsborough's land acquisition program will need to conduct a full site assessment, but their latest document said they have yet to get permission from USF to access the property.
On April 1, the university asked developers for proposals to build out the land, under then-President Steven Currall. Then in June, USF released the eight pitches it received since the request for information.
A spokesperson for USF said in an email that the university has not made any decisions about the preserve.
“USF’s last update on the property was provided in May. Since that time, USF has gone through a leadership transition with Rhea Law now serving as interim president. President Law is reviewing the matter and looks forward to working with the community to establish the next steps in the process very soon,” said the spokesperson.
Mounger said she’s encouraged by Law's moves regarding the property. She’s heard from members of the USF Forest Preserve Advisory Board and the USF Student Government that Law has brought in her own environmental consultant.
WUSF could not get independent confirmation of that statement from the university. But Mounger is worried about what a new administration might do.
"I hope that future administrations at USF understand the ecological value of the site, but also the research and educational value of the property and not just view it as another piece of real estate," she said.