Environmentalist and organizer Ray Wunderlich III stages Saturday pine tree planting at Ft. Desoto

The stand of slash pines will be planted between the historic fort and Arrowhead Picnic area, on the east side of the key.

click to enlarge Wunderlich (R) and a volunteer. - Photo c/o Ray Wunderlich
Photo c/o Ray Wunderlich
Wunderlich (R) and a volunteer.
Ray Wunderlich III is perpetually digging in the dirt, either through his work setting up organic community gardens and native tree planting or metaphorically, by speaking out against city officials, real estate developers and the ongoing poverty in St. Petersburg.

The 61-year-old University of Florida and Florida State grad, who has a bachelor's in health education from UF and master's in sports administration from FSU, guides organizations in planting gardens large and small in Midtown and other neighborhoods throughout St. Petersburg.

Wunderlich leads tours at Boyd Hill Nature Park, teaching visitors about the ecological and cultural history of St. Petersburg. But to understand what drives this self-professed "amateur botanist, historian and everything else," start with the legacy of his father, Ray Wunderlich II, a beloved St. Pete doctor who died in 2014.

The pediatrician cared for Black patients in segregated St. Petersburg in the mid-20th century, when African American families had slim to no chances of finding a doctor who would care for their children.

Pine Tree Planting at Ft. DeSoto
Saturday, Feb. 5, 9 a.m.
"My dad lived in Pinellas Point, and part of my soul is in south St. Pete," he reminisced. "When you have a parent, who's just such a big part of who you are and you lose them, you can appreciate their legacy and try to live up to what they stood for, who they are to you."

In 2009, Wunderlich's parents sold the family home. "We sold it at the very worst time, but that was the circumstances at the time, we were bleeding money out of the old homestead, and it was a beloved house with many memories."

Back then and now, Wunderlich's typical response to setbacks involves getting to work on a project that will do the community some good. It's a way of looking beyond preconceived notions that he learned from his father, who taught him about healing herbs in his garden and practiced preventive and functional medicine long before it was in vogue.

In this spirit, Wunderlich got to work restoring "pocket parks" long neglected by the city.

"I grew up on the pink streets of Pinellas Point," Wunderlich said over the clink of construction workers. "There were still woods down there then. We grew up in a pine forest, and I've always admired and loved pines. So with the destruction of the canopy that's going on, specifically because of increased infill and McMansions, they took out oaks here illegally and legally."

In the aftermath of losses, Wunderlich has brought life to plants and trees in new places, and he's forged new alliances while working with friends he's known since childhood.

"In 2004 and 2006, I had 160 volunteers at one time and 90-something the other, planting trees," he said of his work at Pinellas Point Park. "We planted over a thousand trees, all total. Little dollops of pines and saw palmetto have been able to survive despite the city coming in and whacking a lot of them down."

As for the questionable removal of trees, he says, "our hands are tied pretty much because of this city (St. Petersburg) and, particularly, the state."

Laws have passed that make the removal of trees extremely easy, Wunderlich explained. "As long as you have an arborist come in and say, 'they can cause harm,' you can take them out without any fee. They can just have the tiniest infection, and an arborist will recommend removal."

In Wunderlich's old Pinellas Point neighborhood, Houses surround the Temple Mound, an 800-year-old Tocobagan Indian site. He, in turn, leads tours educating the public on how Florida native plants, naturally occurring in the environment, can prevent the erosion of the Indian mounds. "Non-native, exotic plants often grow on Mounds due to disturbance of the Mound's soil," he said.
click to enlarge Dumping area at Ft.DeSoto to be transformed into a maritime pine ecosystem. - Photo c/o Ray Wunderlich
Photo c/o Ray Wunderlich
Dumping area at Ft.DeSoto to be transformed into a maritime pine ecosystem.
Wunderlich also tells stories about the almost 7000-year-old Maximo Archaeological Park, on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay, consisting of multiple shell mounds. The designation owes in large part to the efforts of Wunderlich and longtime friend Beth Connor, an environmentalist and paralegal, whom Wunderlich describes as "a community-concerned, native St. Petersburger who immerses herself in local environmental and social efforts to better citizens who have little voice." (In 2019, Connor barely lost against City Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders in a bid for the District 5 seat.)

Around 12 years ago, he and Connor spoke out against disc golfers, who never received official permission from the city, to build their concrete-based baskets, throwing pads and removing natural vegetation to create paths into the shell mounds. Their modifications destroyed native, natural flora and fauna habitat, Wunderlich said.

Attempts to remove the recreational fixtures altogether were unsuccessful. Although, Wunderlich and Connor did convince the city and disc golf contingent to relocate two baskets and pads from two prominent mounds and erect some historic information signage.

"But the 18-hole disc golf course remains built, literally, over and in between all the historic archeological mounds and perhaps on yet to be discovered, hidden antiquities," Wunderlich said.

Wunderlich and Connor later convinced the city to halt scraping the beach of seaweed, and to stabilize a section of the beach, formally designated an Indian Mound by the state of Florida, along the southeastern shoreline.

"The frisbee golfers saw it as a personal affront," Wunderlich said. "They stalked and verbally harassed Beth," he said. "They were going through and dissecting all of these native plants and four different ecosystems there. They were just ignorant in the matter."

Wunderlich also doesn't mince words about the state government's (lack of) environmental regulations.

Six months ago, the plight of a "beautiful" stand of south Florida slash pine trees triggered a Wunderlich bat signal. The century-old evergreens occupied a St. Petersburg mobile home park on 54th Avenue North,

"The mobile home park was bought out because it could be developed, according to new legislation by the city of St. Petersburg," he said. "They took down hundreds of these pine trees."

The slash pines made up what Wunderlich estimates as the biggest stand outside Boyd Hill in all of St. Petersburg.

"Now, two-thirds of them are gone," Wunderlich lamented. "So I said, I've gotta replant. I just can't have these trees just go away. I said, 'What can I do?' So I contacted the city of St. Petersburg, the parks department and the stormwater department. Initially, they had an interest, but then they said we can't do it."

Wunderlich assured the city that he would buy and install the saplings. "I would mulch them, and I would water them initially. Then they would have to water them after the first day, and that was all that would have to be done to them, and they refused."

Pinellas County, however, accepted Wunderlich's request to plant a new pine mini-forest. Wunderlich is now spearheading an effort to replenish pines in Fort de Soto Park. The stand of slash pines will be planted between the historic fort and Arrowhead Picnic area, on the east side of the key. The pine planting will take place at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5.

Private donors, businesses and nonprofits are helping out. Wunderlich's childhood friend, Natalie Pruitt, is donating to the project through her family's nonprofit, the Pruitt Foundation, and Wunderlich is co-directing the project alongside his esteemed friend Will Moriaty, director of the nonprofit T.R.E.E. and former district roadside vegetation coordinator at the Florida Department of Transportation.

"When I run my show, I don't want any waste," Wunderlich said. "I don't want any litter, no plastic, you know?"

Cohort Moriaty jibes with Wunderlich's sustainable work ethic, and the compatriot is donating around 10 trees ($200 each) to the project.

Speaking of fruitful collaborations: Earlier this year, Wunderlich partnered with the Rev. Andy Oliver, the progressive pastor of Allendale Methodist Church. Oliver hired Wunderlich to build a community garden on the church property.

"He knows my reputation," Wunderlich said of Rev. Oliver. "He knows I bring integrity and follow through to everything I do."

The garden, framed with wood sourced from Boyd Hill, became the focal point of some controversy, oddly enough. Neighbors of the church protested the philanthropic plot, claiming it interfered with the aesthetic surroundings of the district. Still, Rev. Oliver and Wunderlich persevered until the City Council passed new legislation that would give rights to property owners to grow and sell produce.

Under Wunderlich's leadership, the church garden was successfully installed last spring and still flourishes. Its crops have benefitted Feeding Tampa Bay and other groups helping local families in need.

"I go and find other ways to express what I think needs to be done," he said. "I also enjoy the educational components, guiding the children coming up, young adults that are curious about sustainability, about environmental efforts. How can they get their hands and feet wet and dirty through the planting of a pine tree?"
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