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Disc golfers, environmentalists seek common ground at Maximo Park

ST. PETERSBURG — A fight has quietly been brewing in Maximo Park between environmentalists and disc golfers.

What began as a disagreement about cutting down invasive trees and plants has morphed into a discussion about who loves Maximo the most, a sporting group whose name carries on the park's American Indian history or environmentalists bent on protecting nature and the park's archaeology.

"This park has been disrespected and dishonored for decades," said Ray Wunderlich III, a member of the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.

The disc golfers, meanwhile, say the opposite is true. Their presence in the park deters vagrants, they say. The championship-class course, built on 47 acres in 2001, is the only one in St. Petersburg, and draws players from across the region increasingly attracted to an affordable sport.

"It is really appalling to me that they would want to change something like that," said Joe Kolenda, a club member who has been playing for 10 years.

In the waterfront park, at 34th Street and Pinellas Point Drive S, the arguments have become intense. A disc golfer called the police to report destruction of exotic trees. Some disc golfers say they've heard whispers of a campaign to remove the course from Maximo Park.

Trouble began this year after volunteers working on behalf of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association got the city's permission to weed out invasive plants along the Tocobaga Disc Golf Course. Some members of the golf club, which founded the course, objected. The course, they said, is known for lush greenery that adds to the challenge of landing Frisbees in "holes" made of metal cages.

Soon after, volunteers lodged complaints of trampling of shrubs and plants, some beer drinking and littering as the players maneuvered the course.

Other concerns arose — some having nothing do with disc golfers — including more drinking, cars parked on grassy areas, dogs off leashes and owners who don't clean up after them, looting of artifacts from the archaeological site, and reports of feeding of wildlife.

In addition to the complaints, volunteers observed that the 18-hole disc golf course is built on a Tocobaga Indian mound that dates back 6,000 years.

Kolenda, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the board, agreed that the park is abused. But he insisted that the club discourages rowdy or illegal behavior, and suggested that boaters or beachgoers are often to blame.

Beth Connor, a Sierra Club activist and volunteer in the invasive- plant removal, said two angry disc golfers interrupted her weeding on the morning of Feb. 27.

Connor, who lives in Pinellas Point, and other volunteers were targeting a thicket near the park entrance that was overcome by invasive species that smother the native plants.

Benton Jones, the disc golf club's activity director, called police that day to report someone damaging trees, according to St. Petersburg police spokesman George Kajtsa. Police officers who arrived called the parks department and were told that the volunteers were authorized to remove the plants, Kajtsa said.

The parks department, which manages the city-owned park, has played referee in the dispute, hosting meetings attended by both sides and an American Indian representative, St. Petersburg Preservation and others.

At times, the parks department has sparred with the volunteers, who say the agency could better enforce rules and supervise the historic site.

Cliff Footlick, the city parks director, said he identifies with both sides. Park volunteers are crucial when budget cuts and an employee on sick leave have left the park unstaffed, he said.

Then again, the parks department, which has been bombarded by e-mails from the disc golfers, defends the sporting enthusiasts.

Maximo is a "passive use" park, which means that a baseball field or other large recreational facility cannot be built there. Though it has some of the few wooded areas in Pinellas, it is not listed as a "nature preserve" like Boyd Hill.

Nine years ago, the neighborhood association gave the green light to build the disc golf course, which was largely made possible through donations. Today, current board members like Gerry Lemke say they didn't foresee the unprecedented growth of the sport, which has added more traffic and litter in the woods.

"To be honest with you, I don't think anybody really gave it any thought," Lemke said. "Through the history of the park, walkways and pathways go right over the mound. This has been going on long before the disc golf, and it's just not something that anybody was really paying attention to."

An archaeology expert who has done a survey of the site said that no major damage has been done by disc golf. Still, the expert, Jeff Moates, who runs the West Central Region of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida, recommended that two concrete slab disc golf "tees" on the Indian mound be discontinued to preserve the site.

Moates said that more work needs to be done, including drawing definitive maps of where the golf course overlaps with the Indian mound. Currently, no maps exist.

Not all of the interactions between both sides have been contentious.

Andre Al, a disc golf player from Madeira Beach who resigned from the Tocobaga disc club board recently, said he sympathized with Connor and Wunderlich.

"I felt that by them clipping the exotics, they were doing us a favor in preserving the park," said Al.

In an e-mail, Jones, who is also a disc golf club board member, said the group is "working together with the city … to preserve the Tocobaga Disc Golf Course at Maximo Park."

Moates said he saw something more important in the whole debate: a renewed awareness that the golf course was built on history.

"Everybody wants to preserve the site," he said. "It's not lost. It's actually at the forefront of this discussion."

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Disc golfers, environmentalists seek common ground at Maximo Park 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 5:30am]

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