USF Tampa drops forest preserve development as Indigenous activists demand protection of sacred burial site

While development plans are off for now, Indigenous graves are still in danger of looting and destruction.

click to enlarge A crowd demonstrates in front of the USF Forest Preserve. - LUKE MYERS/YOUTUBE
Luke Myers/YouTube
A crowd demonstrates in front of the USF Forest Preserve.
After a 10-month effort to save University of South Florida's Forest Preserve, activists celebrated a major win this week when the school dropped plans to develop the area.

After a request for information (RFI) for development on the property was sent out to developers last year, environmentalists, students, Indigenous people and political groups rose up in opposition. Steve Currall, USF's former president who oversaw the RFI, resigned in July of 2021 amid the uproar.

Now, USF has dropped their current development exploration, but activists and Indigenous people say more needs to be done.

Rhea Law, Interim President of USF, announced the end to the RFI on Tuesday.

"We will not be pursuing any of the responses to the original Request for Information (RFI) posted in April 2021 and we have ended the RFI process," Law wrote.

In response to Law, Dr. Jeannie Mounger, biologist and environmental activist, sent a letter on behalf of the Friends of University Natural areas, the nonprofit that formed out of the "Save the USF Forest Preserve" movement.  In the letter, she thanked Law for her "willingness to address this community matter with great consideration and for her decision to withdraw pursuit of development of the Forest Preserve."

Mounger went on to thank several groups that helped protect the preserve, including the Florida Indigenous Alliance (FIA), Hillsborough County Commissioners and local journalism outlets that covered the story.

But Mounger's letter ended by highlighting need for more protections for the preserve, despite the fact that USF has backed off for now.

"While the end of the RFI process signals an important win for those of us committed to protecting the USF Forest Preserve, the fight is not over," Mounger wrote.

She pointed out that in order for the USF Forest Preserve to remain protected in perpetuity, strong legal protections in the form of a conservation easement must be adopted by the State of Florida.

"We look forward to working with State and University officials to ensure that the Forest Preserve remains an undisturbed and beloved natural area for future Floridians," Mounger added.

Mounger told CL that she's "happy to see USF right a wrong" by withdrawing the RFI.

"I do count it as a win for those of us working to prevent the destruction of the land. However, I was disappointed by the final recommendations made by the North Fletcher Property Advisory Committee," Mounger said. "I think the committee squandered an important opportunity to call for permanent legal protections for the land, which is why I countered those recommendations with a letter of dissent addressed to Interim President Rhea Law."

Her dissent letter highlighted the weaknesses in USF's recommendations, including the lack of long-term protection.

Assistant Director of Media Relations Althea Johnson sent CL a response to Mounger's dissent letter.

"As identified in the consultant’s ecological assessment report and consistent with the committee’s recommendations, the university could still consider pursuing measures such as a wetland mitigation bank or land conservation easement on certain sections of the property," Johnson wrote in an email.

USF did not clarify whether or not the university has plans to pursue such measures.

Mounger said that she was heartened to hear that the university has acknowledged they can pursue an easement on the property.

"I personally hope they do not pursue mitigation banking as an option given that this measure can lead to net losses of conservation lands in the state, but it could be an avenue through which we can pursue stronger protection," Mounger said.

Beyond the issue of long-lasting legal protections being demanded for the area,  a sacred Native American burial site within the preserve also needs more attention from USF, said a local Indigenous group.

In June of last year, CL reported that  grave sites were being looted by grave robbers who flip Indigenous artifacts for profit.
The site was inspected by members of the FIA, Mounger, and a USFPD officer, in order to figure out the best way to protect the sites. But as of now, the group says that not much has been done by USF, and FIA may have to take matters into their own hands.

"The FIA applauds the decision by the University of South Florida to rescind the RFI for the USF Forest Preserve and other adjacent properties. However, the Indigenous cemetery or burial site remains vulnerable to grave robbers who desecrated the cemetery shortly after the RFI was announced," Sheridan Murphy of FIA wrote in an email.

Murphy said that the FIA will monitor the site and continue to demand that USF place appropriate signs around the preserve indicating desecration of an Indigenous cemetery is a violation of Florida’s Unmarked burial law (FSS 872.05).

"We hope that the cooperation offered by the USF Police continues as we move from working to prevent development of the sites to a process of ensuring protection for the Indigenous cemetery contained within those properties," Murphy wrote.

USF's recommendations for the property do allude to protecting the sites, saying improvements were needed, including, "appropriately designed research and
teaching facilities and those that result in heightened security and controlled access to
natural and cultural resources."

USFPD said that it continues to take steps to help protect the burial site.

"This includes routine patrols and other enhanced proactive measures," USFPD wrote in an email. "USFPD has not received any reports regarding damage or disturbance to the area since you last inquired in June 2021."

But FIA says there are not yet warning signs in the area, and that they want some kind of signage installed.

While the Indigenous and environmentalist communities celebrate the university's halt to development exploration, Mounger also celebrated, but with the future in mind.

"While the Forest Preserve is safe for now, without strong protections like a conservation easement, there is little doubt in my mind that interest in destroying the preserve for short-term profit will rise again, just as it has in the past," she said.

UPDATED: Updated 02/22/2022 with a statement from USFPD regarding the burial site.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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