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We check in on the USF Forest Preserve one year after the university dropped its plans to develop

Wetland edge of the USF Forest Preserve. Wide-angle shot of many trees and cypress knees.
David Lewis
At least 15 different courses at USF have used the Forest Preserve in the past decade.

A student activist talks about the latest in conservation efforts, and the new USF director tasked with managing the land discusses goals for the property.

It’s been one year since the University of South Florida decided not to move forward on proposals it requested to develop on its forest preserve adjacent to the Tampa campus.

The USF Forest Preserve, a 500-acre undeveloped property north of Fletcher Avenue, is owned by the state but managed by the university.

It's used as a natural classroom by the biology department because it's home to rare ecosystems and endangered species.

In February of last year, USF dropped its April 2021 inquiry to develop after students organized, held a protest, received thousands of petition signatures, and got the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners interested in intervening.

Christian Brown, a Ph.D. biology student at USF who’s also with the Save USF Forest Preserve campaign, said the advocates had mixed reactions to USF declining all eight proposals submitted to the Request for Information, or RFI.

"We definitely celebrated a small victory. One that, you know, isn't that common in conservation fights like this. And so, we celebrated a little bit, but the fact of the matter remains that we've only thwarted a single threat. And the forest preserve has faced many threats in the past, and it will face many threats in the future. And there's nothing to stop them from putting out a new RFI tomorrow," said Brown.

The activists are working on a conservation easement through the state so the land cannot be threatened again, but Brown adds that he's happy with recent action taken by USF, like the creation of the Environmental and Conservation Outreach, Research, and Education, or ECORE, System. It brings the Forest Preserve, Botanical Gardens, and the GeoPark in Tampa under one leadership team.

The new ECORE System director, Nicole Brand, is working with the Florida Forest Service to put together a long-overdue prescribed burn plan for the preserve's sandhill habitat tentatively starting in the spring.

Before the burns take place, a cleanup has been organized for April 1 in which ECORE is partnering with USF’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps to pick up trash left behind by scientists for decades. ECORE has also mobilized USF’s biology students, including Brown, to help guide the NROTC members safely through the property, maneuvering around venomous snakes and endangered plants.

Brown said these kinds of activities had been missing for years due to lack of formal management in the past.

“In thwarting the RFI, USF has also kind of thwarted one of these indirect threats, which is that we didn't have formal and sustainable management of the USF Forest Preserve, or the Botanical Gardens, which we now seem to have,” said Brown. “We're moving in the right direction in terms of how USF manages the land.”

Nicole Brand was hired as the ECORE System director about six months ago.

Previously, she worked with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation for six years, creating their first Director of Communications and Director of Outreach Programs positions. She was also a co-founder of the St. Pete Youth Farm.

Brand has a Master of Science degree in food systems from Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine.

A woman with short blonde hair, glasses, a blue collared shirt, and work gloves emerging from a large shrub smiling.
Jason Lauritsen
Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation
Nicole Brand, USF's ECORE System Director.

Her current position was created out of a USF advisory committee’s recommendation on what to do with the forest preserve after backlash from the community surrounding the university's interest in development.

Brand said the university has taken steps to “correct a wrong” of releasing the request for development proposals the way it did — suddenly and without input from faculty and students.

"I strongly believe that the best way to socialize change is to start early and overcommunicate, so that was a learning opportunity, specifically with the Request for Information,” Brand said. “But the steps, I think, were put into place to eliminate the errors of having things happen kind of behind the scenes.”

Brand said there are no current plans to pursue development, but could not speak to whether or not the university would be behind a conservation easement.

She did, however, mention that she’s looking to peer institutions, like the University of Central Florida, to understand the potential options.

“They have several different conservation spaces on their campus, and they have three different conservation land classifications for more than I think it's around 800 acres of natural land,” Brand said. “And so, right now I'm evaluating what are the potential right steps for our own properties, given their proximity to a metropolitan area and the individual needs that those properties have.”

Christian Brown said the students' fight to save the preserve the past couple years not only stopped the most recent threat of development, but also shed a light on the preserve as a resource.

“I've just seen the number of graduate students and researchers back there explode. And so, I think the discoveries and the exciting news coming out of the forest preserve … it's gonna snowball from here,” he said.

As for himself, Brown is graduating in a couple months but got, what he considers to be, a farewell gift from the preserve. He studies salamanders for his dissertation, which are rare to come across terrestrially around Tampa. But a game camera recently captured a North American river otter dragging a large amphiuma, which is a fully aquatic salamander, out of the forest preserve swamp.

“Right before I graduated, I finally got to see a salamander on the game cameras at the USF Forest Preserve with the help of the river otters. So, we like to help each other. We fight for the preserve, and they bring us salamanders and cool treats,” said Brown.

Black and white image of a river otter dragging, with its mouth, a salamander that looks like a snake or eel through the brush.
USF Forest Preserve Game Camera
A North American river otter dragging a large amphiuma, which is a fully aquatic salamander, out of the USF Forest Preserve swamp.

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