Hillsborough tree planting draws Riverview volunteers
By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Riverview residents joined a small army of volunteers Saturday to plant some 20,000 longleaf pine tree seedlings in the Hillsborough County owned-and-preserved Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve in Plant City.
“I love helping the environment and with anything that involves conservation,” said John R.F. Humphreys, 13, a 4-H club member and home schooled student who was at the preserve with family and friends. “It’s important to replenish the environment. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide we breathe out and create the air that we breathe in.”
Presented by the Hillsborough County Soil and Water Conservation District (HSWCD), the June 12 event was sponsored also by The Sustany Foundation, which provided the seedlings, and the nonprofit TREE, Inc., which, at the preserve, received recognition as the Florida Urban Forestry Council’s 2020 Outstanding Tree Advocacy Group.
TREE’s mission is “to beautify and reforest the Tampa Bay area through the planting of native trees.” William Moriarty, a TREE co-founder, said the group has planted seedlings and hopes to plant again this year at the Camp Bayou Learning Center in Ruskin, which he called a great place to see Florida as it once was.
Event sponsors also included Hillsborough County Conservation & Environmental Lands Management, Hillsborough County Sustainability, The Mosaic Company in Lithia, Winthrop Town Centre in Riverview, Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, Odiorne Insurance and the Brandon Global Eco Rotary Club, formerly known as the Rotary Club of Brandon South. The Rotary club has adopted “sustaining the environment” (the newest of Rotary International’s seven focus areas) as its primary focus. The club meets virtually.
“I am just close to tears, happy tears, because it turns out people want to plant trees,” said Andrea Cheney, executive director of Sustany, which aims to be “the place to go for carbon offsets in Tampa.” These seedlings, she said, were first planted January 2019 in Jacksonville.
Many volunteers said they used the planting to mark a milestone in pandemic times, saying it was the first large-group gathering they had attended since the lockdown and slowdown caused by the COVID-19 health crisis.
“This is our first event together since the pandemic started,” said Sarah Behnke, who works for HDR Engineering. The outdoor event, which limited attendance to around 200 people because of COVID-19 protocols, “was a great opportunity for us to get together, to get that team mentality and to see each other face-to-face,” Behnke said.
Along with her colleagues, Behnke volunteered with her sons, Oliver and Simon, who attend SLAM! Apollo, a STEM certified K-8 tuition-free charter school in Apollo Beach. The Behnkes and the other volunteers received free T-shirts, snacks and a goodie bag to mark the occasion. Provided by Hillsborough County Sustainability, the bags were made from recycled plastic. The T-shirts, purchased by HSWCD from the nonprofit Emergency Care Help Organization (ECHO) in Riverview and Brandon, were repurposed to mark event attendance.
“We purchased the repurposed T-shirts in a wide range of colors and styles from ECHO and had them printed with a great conservation logo,” said HSWCD executive director Betty Jo Tompkins. “Doing so we not only supported a great nonprofit, but also provided volunteers an item they can wear to promote conservation.”
Also at the event was Winthrop Town Artist Bryant Martinez, the force behind the Riverview community’s Winthrop Arts Mobile Art Factory.
“I think we need to do more of this,” Martinez said. “Community is common unity and planting trees, what better thing to bring a community together with. We met some very interesting folks who are doing some really great things, and we’re going to keep in contact with them.”
The event served also as a bridge across political divides, with both the Hillsborough County Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Hillsborough County manning booths at the event.
“We need to find things we can work on together, and this is a step in that regard,” said Democrat Russ Conn. “That’s why I do environmental work first and party work second. The trees don’t care about our politics.”
Republican Jim McLoughlin issued a similar sentiment. “We are conservatives, so we’re all about conserving,” McLoughlin said. “I love being engaged in these types of activities and helping our community and we want more. It was really great to see all the kids and families out here.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith was at the event as well, where she said she was actively involved in the citizen’s effort 10 years ago to save Cone Ranch, which is now known as the Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve. It includes some 13,000 acres of former cattle ranchlands and farmlands that have been, and continue to be, restored to a more natural state.
The preserve is among the more than 63,400 acres of environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat and corridors acquired through the County’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP).
The Florida Department of Transportation has issued a proposal to extend Pasco County’s State Road 56 to bring relief to Zephyrhills traffic. Reportedly, the 15-mile route would travel along the Pasco-Hillsborough County line, which puts it near the area where the Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve hooks up with the Upper Hillsborough Preserve owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. While Pasco County is seeking public input on the matter, Smith said there was no contact with Hillsborough County, and she intends to bring the issue before her Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for consideration.
“Hillsborough County has invested an awful lot in not just the purchase of this land, but also in the restoration of the land, as well as in volunteer efforts like this,” Smith said. “When the Florida Department of Transportation is studying to draw any lines on a map through Hillsborough County, they should be picking up the phone and dialing us and involving us so that we can participate in the process and provide input.”
The Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve is at 3540 East Knights Griffin Road in Plant City.