PLANT CITY — The Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve might not be the most beautiful piece of publicly owned land in Hillsborough County, but it has potential.
Just ask biologist Scott Emery, who has been slogging across the 12,800-acre property since 1986. It was Emery who wrote the management plan that county parks department employees are using to restore the land to its natural habitat.
Emery, director of the county wetlands protection division, said the preserve “will be something that, if you come out here every year over the next 30 years, you will see get better and more beautiful and more ecologically diverse.”
He spoke Tuesday at the official public opening of the preserve near Plant City. During daylight hours, hikers and horse riders can use the property, including its three joint-use loop trails and fourth trail just for hikers.
Formerly known as the Cone Ranch, the preserve is by far the largest tract of land preserved under the county’s Jan. K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program, or ELAPP.
About half the property is comprised of native Florida habitats such as riverine and cypress swamps, freshwater marshes, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks. The remainder is pine plantation and pasture land, much of which the county plans on restoring to more diverse ecosystems.
Tuesday’s opening was the culmination of a long struggle by local environmental groups to protect the land from development. Though the former ranch had been owned by the county’s water department since 1988, it was not open for public use. Over the years, several plans surfaced to develop the property.
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County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who spoke at the opening ceremony, noted that previous proposals for the land included an athletic complex and an affordable housing development.
“There was once a proposal for a theme park similar to MGM or Universal-type studios,” Hagan said.
In 2009, Hagan asked the other commissioners to consider a proposal from a group of businessmen calling themselves the Florida Conservation and Environmental Group. The group wanted to broker sales of Cone Ranch land to private buyers in 2,000-acre tracts. The buyers would be allowed to build one house and outbuildings on each tract. About 800 acres would have been retained for a county park.
Hagan said at the time the plan was worth investigating if only to prevent wholesale development of the ranch.
But the proposal united environmentalists in their determination to permanently preserve the land for public use. An advisory panel rejected the businessmen’s proposal and recommended that the county commission convey the land from the water department to ELAPP. The commission approved the recommendations.
“It was critically important that we not only permanently preserve but also restore these environmentally sensitive lands,” Hagan said Tuesday.
Also pleased was former cattle rancher and sawmill operator Alvin Futch, whose father sold one section of the land — 640 acres — to his brother-in-law, J.L. Cone, in the early 20th century.
“I roped my first calf right across this creek,” Futch, 81, said, pointing at Itchepackesassa Creek, which flows into Black Water Creek, a tributary of the Hillsborough River.
Futch, a Plant City Rotary Club member since 1957, started the Rotary Forest Cone Ranch Million Tree Farm, a sustainable tree plantation. Asked how he and his fellow Rotary members felt about the former ranch being preserved, Futch said, “It turned out exactly the way we wanted it to.”
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The Cone Ranch was renamed the Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve because it provides a vital wildlife corridor between the central Florida swamp and publicly owned lands in Hillsborough County, Emery said. The headwaters of four rivers, including the Hillsborough River, originate in the Green Swamp, which stretches across five counties west of U.S. Highway 27.
“If this ranch was developed or severed, it would have been devastated as a wildlife corridor,” Emery said.
The most important challenge in preserve’s restoration will be natural water flow. A working cattle ranch since the early 20th century, the property is scored by ditches used to drain wetlands and create pasture.
Emery gave a demonstration on wetlands restoration to a group of visitors touring the preserve after the opening ceremonies. He walked into a peat marsh about 80 feet and turned to face the touring party. The space between them, Emery said, was wetlands that had been restored by blocking a drainage ditch. Extrapolating that distance around the borders of the 80-acre peat marsh, Emery estimated 10 acres of wetlands had been restored since the county parks department took over management of the ranch in 2010.
“We’re going to restore every one of these wetlands back to where they historically used to be,” Emery said.
About 6,000 acres in the preserve are still leased to cattlemen, Emery said. That will be reduced over time to 2,000 to 3,000 acres.
Emery said he wants the preserve to include cattle and pasture because bald eagles, adaptable and plentiful here, have taught their young to eat cattle egrets.
“You lose the cattle,” he said, “you lose the egrets and you lose the eagles.”