OPINION: USF Forest Preserve needs saving to avoid environmental and social harm

USF’s untouched land should not be developed to protect at-risk species and Native American land while also conserving finances. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/David Lewis

USF announced April 1 that it is allowing companies to send proposals to develop on 769 acres of untouched land it owns, called the USF Forest Preserve, between the USF’s golf course The Claw and Riverfront Park, potentially destroying ecosystems crucial to the survival of many species in the area. 

Although the university has yet to announce if it will build on the land, ecologists are already aware of the damages construction would cause environmentally and economically, hurting the Native American land on which the preserve exists and the endangered species that live within. 

The Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously April 21 to have staff investigate ways to protect the land through the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. This program would allow the state to acquire the land and continue to preserve it, which would be the ideal solution for the environmental activists and students who are outraged by USF’s announcement. 

The land must be preserved to allow USF to reap the environmental, economic and ethical benefits of the Forest Preserve’s protection. 

The preserve, which is used for research by USF’s environmental, biology and botany students, is inhabited by rare ecosystems and animals. The sandhill crane, a federally protected bird under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, inhabits 31 acres of the Forest Preserve, making it illegal for developers to kill or capture the endangered species. 

Other endangered animals that live on the land which cannot risk being killed or displaced include the gopher tortoise, fox squirrel, Florida mouse, eastern indigo snake, little blue heron and ceraunus blue butterfly, according to information provided in a letter to the USF administration by some of the university’s doctoral students and sent to The Oracle. 

There are also over 400 species of plant life on the preserve of which nine are endangered, 13 exist only in Florida and four exist nowhere else in Hillsborough County, according to the letter. 

Most of the 769 acres is federally protected due to its rare floodplain wetlands, according to the letter by doctoral students who have studied the land, meaning development on the preserve would be detrimental to the limited intact wetlands Florida still holds and may even be illegal to destroy.

It is legal to conduct controlled propagation, or the legal movement of wild animals to new habitats, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, but USF’s developers would not be able to relocate all of the animals and plants that rely on the land since much of the plants and wildlife that are endangered on the preserve have limited habitable locations. 

Preserving the 769 acres would also benefit USF economically. Through USF’s graduate students, the university receives an annual S-STEM grant of $1 million to continue its research, which is conducted on the Forest Preserve.

Doctoral candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology Stephen Hesterberg, one of the doctoral students who worked on the open letter, confirmed that preserving the land could be financially beneficial through a conservation easement, a legal agreement with the state to ban the development on the protected property.

“Designating some portions of the property as preserved through a legally binding conservation easement could actually reduce the property taxes or provide direct revenue so long as the land was left undeveloped,” said Hesterberg in an interview with The Oracle. 

“Unfortunately, rather than try to seek financial benefit from the property through innovative and sustainable ways they are instead trying to do the opposite.”

There is no negative economic impact if the university continues to protect and preserve the land. Instead, it could be potentially saving money through tax breaks and grants. 

USF’s Northern Property, where the Forest Preserve is located, is also home to nine recorded Native American archeological sites, according to research collected by the doctoral students protesting USF’s potential development. To build on top of Indigenous land is a continuation of the erasure of culture Americans have contributed to for hundreds of years. 

The land contains historical artifacts and resources that, if built on top of, will be lost forever due to the carelessness of USF. 

After USF submitted a Request for Information on April 1 asking developers to pitch proposals for the land’s potential, USF students and faculty showed disdain for the university’s decision to demolish the preserve through the creation of a petition created by environmental policy student Ryan Hurley and protesting through social media. The petition had received almost 17,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.

While USF continues to pursue its options for the land’s development, students, faculty and Tampa Bay residents must fight back through protests and petitions to stop the university from destroying the habitat of hundreds of plant and animal species. 

The Forest Preserve may end up in the hands of the state through the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, but USF’s lack of awareness for the environmental and ethical weight of the land is contradictory to its common praise for the university’s social consciousness.

On April 21, the Times Higher Education’s 2021 Impact Rankings ranked USF third in a national analysis of 45 public universities and their contributions to sustainable development. The university also ranked 20th on an international level out of 1,115 other public universities. 

If USF wants to live up to the praise of prestigious rankings and its own preeminent title, it needs to work with the BOCC to preserve the land and discontinue plans for development.

USF’s untouched 769 acres of land is home to plants, animals and Indigenous artifacts that the state cannot risk being damaged for environmental and ethical reasons. The university would benefit morally and economically by leaving the Forest Preserve as it is and working with the state government to gain a conservation easement, protecting the land and its inhabitants.