Beneath the surface

Maximo Park's disc golf course seemed like a win-win for St. Pete, but to some environmentalists it's a crime scene.

click to enlarge SCENIC OUTLOOK: "There aren't a lot of disc golf courses that have waterfront," said a member of the Tocobaga club. - Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw
SCENIC OUTLOOK: "There aren't a lot of disc golf courses that have waterfront," said a member of the Tocobaga club.

The sounds you'll hear at the Tocobaga Disc Golf Course are few, but distinct: round, flat projectiles whipping through air and foliage. The rattling of chains when one of those discs hits a target. The occasional pop of a bottle cap. The loud bellows of players after a near miss.

Disc golf (also known as Frisbee golf) is not what most people would call a scrappy sport. It's more Phish than Guns 'N' Roses; more Birkenstock than cleat. Yet avid players of this leisurely game are finding a prized course to be an unlikely battleground for an unlikelier fight.

If you didn't read any of the signage at the course, situated in Maximo Park at the very southern end of St. Pete, you wouldn't know that the ground on which you stand used to be the western edge of a massive, 4,000-year-old Tocobaga village, and that most of the elevated terrain is part of a prehistoric mound consisting of ancient shells and anything else that hasn't since decayed. You wouldn't know that this is the site of the first white settlement in south Pinellas County. You also wouldn't know that there's a small, yet very pissed-off contingent of environmentalists and historic preservationists who want the city to rip out the course — concrete slabs, metal posts, and all.

They say the gentle sport poses a fatal threat to the area's archaeology.

"The way we kind of describe it is death by a thousand cuts," said Ray Wunderlich, a south St. Pete environmentalist who wants the course to be history.

Wunderlich said the 18-hole course's players are slowly tearing away at the park's archaeological attributes. He said they tread on the slight layer of ground cover that prevents the shell mounds, known to archaeologists as midden, from eroding. If it's in their way, he said, they cut away at native vegetation already threatened by invasive plants. His list goes on. One guy allegedly even poured his own concrete to create a new hole.

Environmental activist Beth Connor shares his point of view. She said there's nothing wrong with the game itself, but it shouldn't be played on a historic landmark.

"We really think it's the right sport, wrong place," said Connor, who has fought the city's continued support of the course since at least 2008.

Most people who play at Maximo, first-timers and regulars alike, would certainly beg to differ.

"The disc golfers are not digging, or unsettling the earth, or anything like that," said Joe Kolenda of the Tocobaga Disc Golf Club. As a whole, he says, they're pretty well-behaved, even if there are a few jerks. "We police ourselves as best as we can."

Maximo Park got its name from the man believed to be first white settler in southern Pinellas County — Antonio "Maximo" Hernandez, a Cuban fisherman who homesteaded there in the mid-19th century. Some of Florida's first residents, however, had several millennia on the guy.

The story of the Tocobaga, who lived and died in Tampa Bay long before the feds started slaughtering Seminoles, is a murky one. We know they lived mostly along the coastline from South Pasco to Sarasota for centuries. We know they hunted manatee and squirrels, and ate a ton of shellfish and sometimes used the bigger shells as tools. We know they were wiped out with the onslaught of Spanish germs and steel by the 18th century. Beyond that, we know little else. Archaeologists say that's why Maximo is key.

What's still relatively well-preserved in the park are remnants of what archaeologists say was a sizeable village, one that was apparently there for a very long time.

"Maximo is fairly important because of the length of the occupation," said Jeff Moates of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

Moates, a USF professor who has surveyed the area for the City of St. Petersburg, said radiocarbon dating of items found deep within the midden suggests the town was there 4,000 years ago. Some will tell you it's even older — by, like, 8,000 years.

Remnants of the village include the Pinellas Point Temple Mound. Much of the ruins east of I-275 have been obliterated, and what's left — what's buried in the Maximo wilderness — isn't what you'd call sexy.

"We call it garbage," said archaeological consultant Bill Burger, "the debris of daily life."

Burger said people who think his profession resembles an Indiana Jones flick are mistaken. But the midden, while not a place where you'll find a ton of old weapons or necklaces, is still important.

"You can learn a lot about people by going through their garbage," he said.

It's also one of the few shreds of Tocobaga heritage left in the Tampa Bay area.

Depending on whom you ask, disc golf is either helping or hurting in the struggle to preserve what's left.

Maximo, a 40-acre St. Petersburg city park, is one of the few large patches of green left in the county. In the 1950s the city installed boardwalks, park benches, and picnic shelters at the waterfront park. Over a few decades, though, the area fell into serious disrepair. Invasive plants like Brazilian Pepper began to thrive, among other not-so-pleasant things.

"Back in the mid- to late-'90s we experienced a lot of what we call undesirable activity down there," said Mike Vineyard, park operations manager with St. Pete Parks and Recreation, of the drugs and prostitution for which the park became known.

When a group of disc golfers approached the city in 2000 about putting in an 18-hole course, he said, officials thought attracting a different type of crowd would drive out sketchy goings-on.

"Which it did," he said. "It really was successful."

The city reportedly split the bill for the installation of the tees and holes with the golfers. It became a popular spot for avid players.

Joe Kolenda of the Tocobaga club said it's a lot different from most courses in the area. For one, it's downright lovely.

"There aren't a lot of disc golf courses that have waterfront," he said.

It's mostly shaded, save for a few clearings, and the canopy of oak, cypress, and cabbage palms also make for a challenge. With a winding course and tons of trees, he said, the course doesn't simply guarantee a win for the player who can throw farthest.

Vineyard said the city did all the right things when installing the course. It sought approval from local neighborhood associations, which it got. The City Council member for the district at the time, James Bennett, approved. A review of the archaeology at the park said the impact of such a course would be minimal, according to a report the city released this past June. There was, though, one bureaucratic base the city failed to cover — a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA).

That's a piece of paper issued through the city's historic preservation that ensures any project occurring within an area of historical significance will not mangle said area.

Because there hasn't been a COA, critics say it was illegally built. Around 2008, after a few confrontations over exotic plant removal and alterations of the course, environmentalists Connor and Wunderlich got vocal about disc golf at Maximo.

In response to an archaeological review of the course, the club agreed to relocate two holes — numbers 5 and 18 (the latter being popular because it's on the water). Both were located on midden. Kolenda said the holes have yet to be constructed in their new locations.

Removal of the holes was not enough for Connor and Wunderlich.

They're now going after the city over its lack of a COA. The parks department will ask for an after-the-fact COA Friday, Nov. 18 at 9 a.m. from the Community Preservation Commission. People on all sides of the issue expect a sizable crowd. (We'll let you know what happens on our blog, the Daily Loaf, at cltampa.com).

Connor said she'd like the park to become a place for environmental and local history education. She wants the concrete slabs that serve as tees and foundations for goal baskets removed.

Archaeologist Bill Burger disagrees.

"If the city were to take the course out, it would just incur more environmental damage," he said, adding that having a little concrete over midden actually helps keep the old discarded shells in place.

Plus, he said, the disc golfers can help ward off people who want to illegally dig for artifacts at the site.

"These golfers would be additional eyes and ears in the park," Burger said. "They would be free security."

Kolenda said some disc golfers already act in this capacity.

"I've witnessed child abuse going on in [another section of] the park," he said. "And I've called the police."

George Garcia is director of the Native People's Information Exchange and former head of security with the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement. Though he's based in St. Pete, he works on indigenous rights issues from Oklahoma to Honduras. Garcia said the damage, really, has already happened.

"What's done is done," he said in a phone interview.

Garcia said the golfers, save for the kind that construct their own goalposts on city property, seem like decent people.

"I don't have a problem with them," he said. "[The golfers] seem pretty respectable. They want to protect it."

Now, if the archaeological site in question were something other than an ancient trash heap, Garcia said he might have a different opinion. Especially if there were burials involved.

"That would be different," he said. "That would be very different."

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