The University of South Florida has received several ideas in response to its inquiry about development of USF Forest Preserve (USFFP) land. Indigenous and environmental activists are pushing back.
USF accepted several submissions in response to the college’s Request for Information (RFI) for potential development on the 769-acre preserve and cultural heritage site, which USF refers to as a “parcel” in the response document. The Claw golf course is also considered for development.
Multiple options are presented in the response, ranging from a specialized tech space to workforce housing and architecture. USF says that there will not be a football stadium developed on the land, and that none of the ideas presented in the document constitute an official proposal.
The response calls for an advisory committee to review the suggestions. USF says the committee has not been determined but that it will include both faculty and student representation. The committee will evaluate the best use of the property, or pieces of the property, which could include simply keeping the preserve as it is.
Activists recoil at the move to further explore development of the preserve.
“We condemn President Currall and USF administrators for continuing to proceed with the process of placing the USFFP under review for destruction,” the group ‘Save USFFP’ wrote in a statement. “We demand with renewed vigor that they discontinue the formation of a proposal review committee and listen to resounding calls from faculty, students, the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners, and the Tampa Bay community to preserve the land.”
Over 20,000 people signed a change.org petition that calls to stop the exploration of development of the USFFP and nearby properties.
Save USFFP points out that the USF Master Plan for 2015-2025 designates the entire 769-acre northern property as unavailable for development, and says that the USF administration has never directly addressed that they are in violation of this document.
“The Currall administration has outsized decision-making power, yet governs haphazardly and with little concern for their students, faculty, and staff,” the activist group wrote.
Students and teachers know the USFFP as a crucial ecosystem, supporting thousands of species of wildlife, including over 20 endangered plant and animal species. Important naturalistic learning opportunities can only be found within the preserve, and the forest helps clean the waters of the Hillsborough River as it flows into Tampa Bay.
Sacred Native American burial grounds exist on the site, which are a heated point of contention.
“The university recognizes the land has significant value in support of research and academic opportunities and that portions of the property have cultural significance to indigenous peoples,” the intro to the RFI response reads.
The Florida Indigenous Alliance (FIA) says it’s unacceptable to continue exploring the idea of development near the sacred grounds.
“The right to rest in peace is a basic one for human beings. One would think in the Tampa Bay area, where it has become startlingly obvious that there was no respect historically given to African American cemeteries, that the USF Administration would be at least pretending to be concerned about Indigenous cemeteries located on the properties,” FIA wrote in a statement released on June 1st. “Yet USF is issuing an RFI for development, unconcerned with providing respect to Indigenous human beings laid to rest where they now want to make profit through destruction of the environment and desecrating those cemeteries.”
The FIA says they have notified USF of their intent to use all legal avenues to halt any development that imperils the Indigenous cemeteries in the preserve, and that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and Florida’s Unmarked Human Burial Act provide protection for Native American unmarked cemeteries against desecration.
The group says it will take any necessary action to defend the Indigenous cemeteries located on the USF properties in question. FIA says that it prefers and looks forward to the dialogue of cooperation, but is prepared for the rhetoric and action of confrontation, if necessary.
Activists ask that all investigations of potential development come to an end.
“We call on the USF Board of Trustees and President Currall to place the USF Forest Preserve under a conservation easement in order to protect it permanently,” writes Save USFFP.