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The beat of central Florida’s hydrologic heart lies between Tampa and Orlando in 560,000 acres of Florida backcountry called the Green Swamp. The Green Swamp includes portions of Polk, Lake, Sumter, Hernando and Pasco counties. Within these acres is a complex, integrated and delicate natural system composed of cypress swamps, hardwood forests, marshes, pine flatwoods and sandhills.
Emerging from this precious oasis are the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha and Peace rivers. These rivers provide much of central Florida’s water supply.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District (District) has purchased approximately 110,000 acres in the Green Swamp to keep the land and water resources protected for future generations. This area is known as the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. The Preserve is divided into three management units: Green Swamp (East)—67,670 acres; Green Swamp West—37,350 acres; and Little Withlacoochee Flood Detention Area—4,446 acres. When combined with the 63,522 acres of adjoining publicly owned land, there are about 172,988 acres of the Green Swamp under public ownership. In addition, the District has protected 6,000 acres of privately owned land through the purchase of conservation easements.
The Green Swamp is recognized by the state of Florida for its ecological and hydrological importance. There are several unique characteristics of the area. The Green Swamp has the ability to store surface water and slow the flow of floodwaters while sustaining rivers and streams. Its relatively high elevation, together with a shallow depth to the aquifer, keeps water levels high. The water table for much of the year stands above the potentiometric surface of the Floridan aquifer, providing recharge to the area.
The makeup of the Green Swamp puts pressure onto the aquifer, helping to push water through to the Gulf of Mexico. The water flowing from the Green Swamp is generally of higher quality than other watersheds. This is due to the Green Swamp being largely undeveloped, plus its lengthy surface water detention time.
While archaeologists report evidence of human activity in the Green Swamp dating back to as early as 6000 B.C., permanent ancient human settlements have never been discovered. However, it has always been home to an abundance of plant and animal life, making it attractive for human use. The land was used by ancient peoples for hunting and food gathering, as well as collecting material to make weapons.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto explored the area in search of riches. His army discovered that the Green Swamp was so large that they had to move west to get around it. The army passed through an area referred to as the Great Swamp, located at today’s Hillsborough River State Park. From there de Soto camped in Dade City, then traveled down the Withlacoochee River and through today’s Withlacoochee State Forest. The feral hogs populating Florida’s woods today are descendents of those brought in for food by Hernando de Soto.
The campaigns of the Second Seminole War are considered an outstanding demonstration of guerrilla warfare by the Seminoles. The thick forests of the Green Swamp provided the Seminoles refuge, as well as “perches of ambush” deep in the wilderness, in their battle against the United States. Historians claim some Seminoles remained in the Florida wilderness well into the 20th century, living in small traditional camps of cypress-frame/palmetto-thatch chickees.
Throughout the 1920s, the Larkin family’s Two Rivers Ranch was a large ranching operation in the area. Millard and Overstreet Turpentine Company produced turpentine, a major Florida industry.
A plentiful supply of cypress and pine trees led to a profitable logging industry named The Cummer Sons Cypress Company (1922-1959), later known as the Cummer Company, in the town of Lacoochee. The people of the Green Swamp were able to make a living from timber production. A railroad was built through the middle of the swamp to transport the timber to the mill in Lacoochee. Due to the heavy logging, very few of the centuries-old cypress trees remain today.
In 1960, a heavy rainy season, followed by Hurricane Donna, caused severe flooding throughout west-central Florida. This disaster led to the creation, by the Florida Legislature, of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (District) as a flood-control agency. The District became the local sponsor of the Four River Basins, Florida Project (FRB), a plan developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flooding in the Tampa Bay area by building dams and water-retention areas. Initial purchase of the Green Swamp lands was to convert them into a series of flood-detention areas for the FRB. After controversy about disrupting a natural system, the District took a non-structural approach to flood protection by leaving the Green Swamp in its natural state.
As water needs changed and population grew, the role of the District also grew. Today, District responsibilities include management of water supply, water quality and protection, the protection of natural systems relating to the water supply, and flood protection. The District encompasses all or part of 16 counties and is responsible for eight basins other than the Green Swamp, including: Alafia River, Coastal Rivers, Hillsborough River, Manasota, Peace River, Pinellas-Anclote River and Withlacoochee River.
Early Floridians saw wetlands as worthless and nearly ten million acres of Florida’s swamps and marshes were drained. Demand to commercially develop the Green Swamp began in the early ’70s as Walt Disney World opened just to the east. However, the state of Florida recognized the hydrologic and environmental need to keep development under control, so in 1974, the state designated approximately 322,000 acres of Florida as an “Area of Critical State Concern.” This area included the Green Swamp. Even with this heightened state of concern, because Tampa and Orlando continue to grow on each side of the Green Swamp, the demand for its natural resources remains.
Established by the Florida Environmental Land and Water Management Act of 1972, and described in Chapter 380 of the Florida Statutes, the Area of Critical State Concern designation denotes areas that contain natural resources of regional or statewide importance, areas that are, or will be, significantly affected by major public facilities, or areas of major development potential. (Department of Administration, 1974) The Green Swamp satisfied all three criteria until the FRB project was declared inactive in 1984. This declaration was due to the Green Swamp no longer being threatened by major public facilities.
The Cummer Company sold some of the land to Agri-Timber, Inc. Under Agri-Timber management, lands were leased for hunting and cattle, a sawmill and mulching plant supported a timbering operation, and sand, peat and limerock mines were operated in the area.
This same year a sailor from Taiwan, known as “Wildman,” spent six months hiding from the law in the forested swamp. He lived in a hollowed cypress tree and ate armadillo meat until he was captured.
In 1981, the Water Management Lands Trust Fund (WMLTF) was established for acquisition of lands. This fund, commonly known as the Save Our Rivers (SOR) program, is used by the five water management districts for the management, maintenance and protection of lands so that they may maintain their natural state and functions.
In 1990, the Florida Legislature also passed the Florida Preservation 2000 (P2000) Act. The P2000 Act includes the preservation of fish and wildlife habitat, of lands in danger of development and of water recharge areas. Both SOR and P2000 lands are widely used for recreational activities.
The Florida Forever Act was passed as a successor to P2000. This act not only focuses on conservation and preservation, but also on water resources development, restoration and recreation. Over the next decade it will provide $3 billion to purchase land and water resources to preserve Florida’s quality of life. Each water management district is required to develop a Florida Forever Five-Year Work Plan. These work plans must incorporate the Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) plans, SOR plans, stormwater management plans, water body restoration projects and other projects that would lead to meeting the goals for the Florida Forever program.
The 870-square-mile Green Swamp is a large expanse of poorly drained flat terrain, where the groundwater is close to the surface. Much of the area is a mosaic of wetlands, mesic flatlands and uplands, subject to seasonal flooding. Flood and fire largely govern the composition and distribution of vegetation, creating a distinctive mosaic of natural communities. Flooding also limits intensive agriculture and large-scale development, resulting in one of Florida’s most significant natural areas.
Properties in the region are privately or publicly held. Much private land is improved pasture or other altered lands, with scattered natural areas. Most public lands, approximately one-third of the Green Swamp area, are primarily natural plant communities and habitats with widely scattered stands of altered lands. Public lands are typically managed for the conservation and restoration of natural resources. Natural plant communities in the area include:
These natural communities support populations of an estimated 330 species of wildlife. Among this population are more than 30 threatened or endangered species, including the Florida black bear, Florida scrub jay and wood stork. Widespread species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, alligators, and numerous songbirds and wading birds are also common throughout the Green Swamp.
The serenity and seclusion of the Green Swamp allows for quiet observation and study of a variety of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, invertebrates and amphibians within the natural landscape.
The management of the Green Swamp involves the coordinated efforts of many different agencies and organizations. The District is the lead agency responsible for regulating, protecting, preserving, restoring and making available for public use the water resources and lands of the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. Other agencies coordinate preservation efforts in the non-District-owned lands of the Green Swamp.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) is concerned with the health and natural balance of the area’s fish and wildlife, and in particular popular game species. The FWCC runs public hunts in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve and on other state-owned lands. The Division of Recreation and Parks supervises the area’s Van Fleet State Trail, while the Division of Forestry oversees the forested lands in the Richloam Tract. In many instances, public land in the Green Swamp is managed cooperatively by more than one agency, with assistance from volunteers and the private sector.
To manage the diverse ecosystem of the Green Swamp, the District, along with other agencies, uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance and protect the various habitats. These include wetlands and uplands restoration, prescribed burning, land maintenance, timber management, monitoring of wildlife and the control of exotic species.
At one time, Florida’s wetlands were all but given away in order to promote development in wetlands. Today, with a tremendous increase in population and a booming building industry, regulatory agencies still receive pressure to allow construction and development in wetlands. The continued development of land within wetlands, or in close proximity to wetlands, calls for an ever-present vigilance on behalf of government agencies to protect these environmentally sensitive habitats. Only with their protection can the Green Swamp’s many natural resources be ensured for years to come.
Land acquisition is the most effective approach to protecting ecologically significant areas. Under District ownership, land can be preserved and protected. Statutory mandates require that the District’s management of such lands ensures a balance between public access, general public recreational purposes, and restoration and protection of their natural state and condition.
The Florida Legislature allocates money to water management districts to purchase land. There are two ways the District acquires land. One is by outright purchase, referred to as a fee simple acquisition, which gives the District all rights to the land. The other way the District acquires land is through less-than-fee acquisition. This refers to a purchase of only those property rights necessary to ensure resource protection, while allowing the fee title ownership to remain in private hands. To preserve and protect the natural features of the Green Swamp, the District and other agencies are in the process of restoring lands and waterways that have been negatively impacted by past uses. This includes restoring uplands converted to pastureland, restoring wetlands that were once drained and re-establishing plant and animal communities on other lands affected by physical changes to the environment.
Like most of Florida, the Green Swamp’s climate makes it an ideal place for things to grow. For this very reason, it also makes this environmentally sensitive area extremely vulnerable to invasion by exotic species, or non-native species. If conditions are right, an exotic can easily thrive, take over and crowd out native plants and animals.
The invasion of native plant communities by exotics is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous threats to Florida’s environment. Cogon grass, tropical soda apple and skunkvine are some of the exotic species that are found in the Green Swamp. Today, these exotics and others are targeted for removal and control to protect the environment. The District has established formal procedures to identify, document and control these plants on District lands and waterways.
Exotic animals, too, can upset the natural balance in this fragile environment. Feral hogs, introduced centuries ago by Spanish explorers, have damaged entire forests and pasturelands within the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, and continue to pose a threat to the area’s ecosystem.
Fire is a process that occurs naturally in many of Florida’s habitats. Ignited by lightning, fires clear the forests’ floors of debris, recycling nutrients and encouraging new plant growth. Fires also stimulate the flowering and fruiting of plants, which provides food for insects, birds and a variety of mammals, including deer, raccoon, opossum and bear.
When development and roadways limit fire’s natural cleansing process, the diversity of vegetation is affected and the ecosystem of the area suffers. Today, land managers are aware of the benefits of this natural force and use controlled fires, called prescribed burns, to maintain plant and animal diversity and abundance.
Prescribed burning mimics the natural frequency of lightning-caused fires. These prescribed burns promote the growth of food sources for wildlife, such as saw palmetto fruits and gallberries. Used as an important land management practice, prescribed burns also help to manage brush undergrowth, allowing small plants and trees to thrive.
Making the public aware of the Green Swamp’s value and vulnerability is a key factor in preserving its many natural resources. For that reason, the District has enthusiastically promoted the use of its lands for environmental education programs.
The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve is often made available to local organizations, schools and universities for scientific research and environmental education. Serving as natural laboratories, the ecosystems and habitats within these lands offer excellent opportunities for examination and study. Eco-tours are available by the District to different organizations interested in environmental education.
Working with schools and civic groups throughout the region, the District has created programs, such as teacher workshops, designed to raise awareness concerning the need to protect, conserve and preserve the natural resources of the Green Swamp. Agreements for scientific study with various research organizations have also been negotiated to assess natural resources on District-owned lands.
The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve includes areas that are valuable for more than their natural resources. They are also cherished for their exquisite scenic beauty. Acquired as public lands, these areas are open for recreation, with the understanding that their use maintains and preserves the Green Swamp's natural state.
With 98 percent of the area open for public access, the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve is an ideal place to experience natural Florida. More than 30,000 people visit the Preserve each year to enjoy various recreational opportunities. Activities available in the preserve include hunting, fishing, horseback riding, camping, hiking, canoeing and bicycling. Be prepared for hot sun on open, sandy roads but shaded areas may be muddy. The District has produced a Recreational Guide that lists areas open for recreation on various District-owned lands.
Historical structures in Green Swamp leave a reminder of a past not forgotten. Some of the structures have been moved to the Pioneer Museum in Dade City, Florida. The remaining structures in the Green Swamp have or will be refurbished for office space and public use.
The Green Swamp offers a variety of fishing and hunting opportunities within its protected boundaries. The secluded rivers and waterways throughout the area are a paradise for those who love to fish for largemouth bass and bream, while hunters travel to the Preserve in search of wild turkey and white-tailed deer. For specific area fishing and hunting regulations, contact the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Of all the recreational activities in the Green Swamp, hiking is perhaps the most environmentally friendly way to enjoy this extensive wilderness. Footpaths and trails abound in the Preserve. They range from short trails perfect for day hikes, to longer, extended loops and linked networks more suitable for overnight backcountry hikes. The District and the Florida Trail Association (FTA) have worked together to provide hiking trails in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. The 20-mile Green Swamp Trail has been developed and maintained by the FTA, and 13.1 miles are part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The Green Swamp Trail bridges the entire distance of the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. At various points along the Green Swamp Trail, three hike-in campsites have been created to accommodate overnight guests. These campsites are open to hikers only and must be reserved in advance through the District. Other hiking trails include a short path at the Withlacoochee River Park, and the Van Fleet State Trail that borders the eastern property line of the Preserve.
Trails for bicycling and horseback riding are available on 42 miles of service roads. Future trails may be created that provide a pleasing trail riding experience, have a low impact to natural areas and are compatible with the wilderness quality of the preserve.
Canoeing through the Green Swamp on the Withlacoochee River offers a true wilderness experience. Nearly 36 miles of the Withlacoochee’s 110-mile length are preserved within the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. Some areas of the river are inaccessible due to the poorly defined river channel, logjams, aquatic vegetation and, during some parts of the year, low-water levels. A river campsite is accessible with permit.
A product of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.