Tampa, FL

USF preserve development could put over 20 endangered plant and animal species at risk

Justin Garcia

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Roseate Spoonbill/Jeannie Mounger

Developing preserve land in Tampa could put a vast array of plants and wildlife at risk, including endangered species, experts say.

Thousands of plant and animal species call University of South Florida’s Forest Preserve (USFFP) home, of which at least 20 are federal or state listed threatened or endangered species. According to researchers at USF, the endangered and threatened animals include: the gopher tortoise, indigo snake, fox squirrel, Florida mouse, short-tailed snake, tricolored heron, woodstork, roseate spoonbill, limpkin and the sandhill crane.

USF students and faculty say that they were not notified that the college leadership began seeking out developer ideas for the 769 acre property. They found out instead through an article published by The Tampa Bay Business Journal on April 6th.

Jeannie Mounger, PhD Candidate in Integrative Biology at USF, was shocked by the news. Many of her colleagues were as well, because the preserve is such a vital resource for studying nature. Mounger spends a lot of time on the preserve, alone and with students. She specializes in plant life, and It’s one of the only places she can teach students about endangered and threatened plant species such as the Florida loosestrife, the blue butterwort, Tampa butterfly orchid, Florida milkvine, giant orchid, green fly orchid, giant airplant, rain-lily, the giant wild pine airplant and the royal fern.

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Blue Butterwort/Jeannie Mounger

For Mounger, it’s not only a place of learning, but where she finds an intense connection with nature.

“The preserve itself is kind of this phantasmagoric wonderland of biodiversity. You try to take a picture of it, but you can never find the right angle to encapsulate its beauty,” Mounger says. “It's like it's simultaneously fleeting and exploding all around you. It's really one of the most special places I've ever been to in Florida.”

It’s where Mounger feels most at home. Her passion for the wellness of the preserve and the creatures that live there has led her to become an activist in saving the preserve, along with other concerned students and residents from Florida and around the country. A change.org petition demanding that USF change course on seeking to develop the land has gained over 16,000 signatures, with signees leaving hundreds of comments speaking out against developing the property.

“At this point the University of South Florida is simply exploring options that might be available on the property,” says Adam Freeman, Director of Media Relations for USF. “The Request for Information allows USF to gauge interest and obtain information to consider the best strategy for a potential project that could provide greater financial resources to support the university’s mission and benefit our students, faculty and staff.”

Freeman says that funds generated annually from a ground lease on the property could be invested in an endowment that grows over time and provides new resources for USF to fund student scholarships, recruit new faculty members, or support research opportunities. He says that USF is not required to take any action on proposals submitted by developers.

He acknowledges that a portion of the property within the forest preserve is designated as federal wetlands and includes protected species. Proposals received by the university must consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property in order to minimize any environmental impacts.

Any potential project would have to fall within existing restrictions for the development of the property pursuant to USF’s master plan, City of Tampa codes and ordinances, and the requirements of other agencies, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.

Christian Brown is a Doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at USF. He studies integrative biology, with a specialization in vertebrate biology. Brown says that all life on the preserve is connected.

“The special world of plants that Jeannie Mounger sees is imperative for the survival of the special animals that I study and teach students about,” Brown says. “Having any part of this habitat developed could make this yet another polluted, uninhabitable place for Florida wildlife.”

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Gopher Tortoise/Jeannie Mounger

Brown points out that if any section of the preserve is developed, it can cause animals to flee up to miles away from the developed site. Animals fleeing development have been known to run out into roadways, which can cause them to be killed as well as endanger drivers, he says. The animals could also face more dangers from human pollution as they flee from development.

For example, part of the USFFP property includes a golf course called The Claw. Brown points out that even a partially man made space such as this is used by a multitude of animal life to access the local waterways. Without this corridor, the animals would be imperiled and scatter to look for a new access point.

As she waits in anticipation for the university’s response to the rising unrest around the idea of development on the preserve, Mounger says that the thought of losing it, or seeing it damaged or diminished in any way is unbearable.

“In my 33 years of life, I have watched so much beautiful land in Florida disappear, and the plants and animals with it, chewed up to build cheap suburban tract homes and stripmalls or roads to nowhere,” Mounger says. “It's heartbreaking, I often feel despondent. But knowing this particular land so intimately, knowing precisely what's at stake if we lose it, I have a moral obligation to stand up and say, ‘No. Not this one’.”

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I write stories about Florida politics, environmental issues, interesting people and music. I strive to shine a light on issues that are still in the dark, as well as help to give voice to the voiceless.

Tampa, FL
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