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.
Hernando de Soto explored the area
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.
Second Seminole War
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.
Four River Basins, Florida Project
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 (FRB), Florida Project, 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 the population grew, the role of the District also grew. Today, District responsibilities include flood protection, management of water supply and water quality and protection of water-related natural systems.
Area of Critical State Concern
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. 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.
Save Our Rivers/Preservation 2000/Florida Forever
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.