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A walking tour of the USF Forest Preserve reveals a rich natural world within Tampa's urban sprawl

Three people kneeling down into yellow honeycomb head flowers with tall green trees behind them.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Stephen Hesterberg, Jeannie Mounger and Christian Brown are the organizers of the Save USF Forest Preserve campaign.

Put on your hiking boots because we're trekking through the USF Forest Preserve in Tampa. The University of South Florida has requested and received proposals to build on this undeveloped property. Student researchers, turned activists, show us what makes this parcel of land so special.

On a chilly early weekday morning, three scientists are leading a guided tour of the USF Forest Preserve, which is about 500 acres of undeveloped property belonging to the University of South Florida adjacent to the Tampa campus. They have learned and now teach on this land as PhD candidates for USF. Christian Brown specializes in animals, Jeannie Mounger is a plant expert and Stephen Hesterberg is a marine ecologist.

A sandy path lined with saw palmetto plants drooping trees.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
The USF Forest Preserve has been used for scientific research and education, including Ph.D. dissertations, since 1971.

As we walk through the east metal gate, they tell me to picture this portion of wildlife corridor as having a gingerbread man shape, lying parallel to Fletcher Avenue with the head pointing toward the university. So, we start at its right foot and trek up toward its head, which is actually the connection point of the Cypress Creek and Hillsborough River watersheds.

If that connection were to be severed by development, Brown said it would create island habitats for the species that live there.

"A lot of species can't thrive in those island habitats. They need a way to move to acquire resources: mates, food, etc., and in order to move across the landscape, they need to have corridors between different habitats types,” said Brown.

Earlier this year, USF requested and received proposals to build on the parcel. That energized students and professors to develop a grassroots campaign to save their natural classroom.

The preserve is home to rare ecosystems, like critically endangered sandhill habitat and federally protected wetlands. Multiple threatened and endangered species live there too, such as the gopher tortoise, wood stork and ceraunus blue butterfly. And more than 400 plant species grow there, including four that are only found in Hillsborough County.

We're walking on dry, sandy soil passing the burrows of threatened gopher tortoises — some are naturally decorated with bright yellow honeycomb head flowers.

A hole in sandy upland soil with yellow honeycomb head flowers surrounding it.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Threatened gopher tortoises have burrows all throughout the dry uplands of the USF Forest Preserve.

"There's a leopard frog right here. It's fast. There's a couple of them. There's a lot of them, actually,” said Brown as he quickly crouches down to catch one southern leopard frog among a leaping bunch.

It's about the size of a quarter with a light green hue and brown leopard markings down its back. Brown refers to local amphibians as canaries in a coal mine.

"They're really good bio-indicators so they basically show that the water is clean and healthy,” he said.

Small quarter-sized frog with light green hue and leopard print down its back in a person's hand.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Southern leopard frogs are found throughout Florida, with the exception of the northern Keys, in virtually any shallow freshwater habitat (sometimes even brackish), hardwood forests, and pine flatwoods, according to UF/IFAS.

The dirt and sand path we're on, which was originally paved by cypress tree loggers, begins to wash out. You can tell water has flowed through here at one point. This is the transitional space between the dry and wet lands.

“You’re starting to see that there's a lot more vining vegetation in the trees. It's starting to get a little thicker here. There's a lot of really tall grass,” said Mounger.

She said this is a very important space to mitigate flooding in neighborhoods, specifically near Cypress Creek.

"So, all these surrounding communities, Tampa Palms, etc., they will flood if development continues to occur in these conservation lands,” said Mounger.

Then we stumble upon something really rare.

"That is a nighthawk! Wow! Lifer experience. Oh my gosh!” Mounger said with wide eyes and a dropped jaw.

Nighthawks are nocturnal. You can sometimes hear them calling at dusk but you don't often get to see them.

Small brown and white bird resting on the ground with squinty eyes and a small beak.
Andy Wraithmell
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
This is a common female nighthawk in Florida.

We catch up with the other two scientists to tell them about the sighting. And then Brown tells me we're about to step into a wetland.

"This is an old berm, like an old raised road, that kind of went right through the wetlands and so we're about to have standing water on either side,” he said. “It's a really cool access point for the students because they can see all of the wetland wildlife without having to wade through the swamps. We hang game cameras and observe otters here and it's just like a nice window into another world."

Students learn to find, capture, and identify wildlife. Some graduates who have studied out here now work at zoos, aquariums, private consulting firms, and government research projects.

Action shot of two slick otters running through grass and trees.
Christian Brown
Game camera footage of a pair of otters within the USF Forest Preserve.

We eventually get hit with this smell of rotting fish — that means we've made it to the otter latrine.

"It's basically an area where they all express their anal glands and drop feces and communicate with each other. Here's a pile right here. If you take a closer look you can see that it's pretty much composed of old crayfish or old crawdad parts," said Brown while kneeling over the heap of dry shellfish remnants.

Broken and dry pieces of shellfish and other unidentified organisms on the palm of a hand.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Christian Brown picks through dry otter scat at the USF Forest Preserve.

After squeezing through some final foliage, we make it to the head of the gingerbread man, better known as Cypress Creek, which is a 30-mile tributary of the Hillsborough River. All around us, you can see the reflection of sky and cypress trees in the slow-moving water. It's quiet. You can only hear some birds, and the water bubbling up where an otter is cryptically coming up for air.

Hesterberg said when he first heard about the possible development of the area, he was really concerned about this, right here.

"This tributary flows into the preserve to the west. Over 300 acres of floodplain wetlands here that we have in the preserve that is filtering all of this water that is coming downstream and into our main drinking supply water here in Tampa which is the Hillsborough River,” he said. “As an ecologist, it can be really a difficult profession because [of] how much the world has changed, and how much has been lost.”

But Hesterberg said he has always considered the USF Forest Preserve as being a natural place that would remain safe, until now.

Focus on purple feathery flowers with yellow flowers out of focus behind them, with a backdrop of tall trees.
Jeannie Mounger
Save USF Forest Preserve
Florida Paintbrush, or Carphephorus corymbosus.

We turn back, down to the right foot of the gingerbread man where we started, and make our way up the left foot to end the hike on dry land in front of yellow, white and purple wildflowers. Here, Jeannie Mounger reflects on her feelings about the preserve.

"The thing that strikes me the most are the times that I do get to bring students out here, and I get to see their joy, and I get to see the light in their eyes,” she said. “You just know that they're forming memories that they're not going to forget."

Young people surrounding a red, black and orange striped snake coiled on an arm and hand.
Stephen Hesterberg
USF's vertebrate natural history class studying a scarlet king snake, held by Christian Brown.

USF will receive public comments on developing the preserve within the next month or so, and then a university advisory board — of which Mounger was appointed — will recommend what to do with the property.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.