Hillsborough solicits input to preserve former Cone Ranch land in Lower Green Swamp Preserve
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04/17/12 Samuel Johnson
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Hillsborough County owns nearly 13,000 acres in the Lower Green Swamp and is now working on plans to preserve the land formerly known as Cone Ranch. On April 7 more than 40 people attended a public meeting about the proposed management plan at The Lower Green Swamp Preserve on the outskirts of Plant City.

The proposed preserve has habitats like rivers, wetlands, marshes, swamps, pine forests and cattle pastures. Scott Emery, director of Wetlands at the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, wrote the land management and land use proposal. Emery was on hand to introduce the public to the plan. He says there are many viable reasons for its necessity most notably safe wildlife migrations.

”With the preservation and enhancement of this ranch you'll be able to have wildlife migrations for a hundred miles back and forth and they will never have to cross over a road because they can cross under 39. If you look at the state road 39 bridge along Blackwater, they can cross under there. So it's critically important in terms of its location.”

This wide range of Florida habitats is home to an even wider variety of plants and animals. Some of these animals are severely threatened or endangered. The eagle population is thriving but the red wolf and the Florida panther are both candidates for an on site captive breeding project. Emery hopes a buffer zone created by the cattle pastures will allow the Sherman’s fox squirrel to make a comeback.

”The edge effect of having pasture grass a large oak an pine trees moving into wetland systems creates what we call an ecological edge effect. Certain species of animals thrive in those ecological edges. If you wanted to go find fox squirrels here; you will find them in the big live oaks and large pine trees that edge the pasture areas.”

Before the public begins visiting the preserve the county needs funds for maintenance and trail construction. Ross Dickerson, General Manager of Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, says the plans call for an incremental opening done in phases.

”This site is not going to be open to the public until the economy gets better. Because right now 21 people on my staff, 60 sites and over, almost 61 thousand acres. And we just don't have the staff to come out here and maintain trails and everything like that.”

One of the aims of the proposal is to encourage the park to be sustainable. Cattle leasing will be allowed to continue. Another option is carbon banking. Carbon banking emerged from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 as a way to exchange credits for carbon emission. There are ways of creating revenue on a more local scale. Some of the ideas include establishing native seed banks or harvesting honey from commercial beekeeping or indigenous plant and flower nurseries. Emery says that permitting business to operate in the park can be profitable.

”Natural Florida honey area where we would interview different beekeepers and see if they would want to come in and cultivate they type of flowers and palmettos that are good for wildflower honey production. And create a Florida honey type approach here.”

Not everyone is pleased with the conservation initiatives. They point out that if Lower Green Swamp remains off limits to hunting some animal populations will become dangerous. Thinning the herds is necessary to a good but confined ecosystem. Earl Driggers says that the wild swine will become an increasing problem if left unchecked.

”It's just going to be a place for them to breed. The ain't going to be able to kill them; the ain't going to be able to trap them. Once a hog gets trapped out a time or two they quit coming into traps. You know?; if they don't let them work them with the dogs and shoot them they just ain't going to get rid of them.”

The proposal’s main focus is on conserving and protecting a portion of Hillsborough’s natural environment. Emery says an equally important focus is The Lower Green Swamp’s contribution to Florida conservation as a whole.

”As I understand the state is looking to create a wildlife corridor swathe; basically along the Peace River corridor area up almost to the Green Swamp. And if that happens they can go from the Green Swamp back down through here. You would have a massive not only in terms of acreage but length of wildlife corridor that you could go...The Florida panther could come from South Florida and go all the way up to Green Swamp then over to Temple Terrace.”

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