Environment at the fore front: Keys for greener municipal golf courses
Environmentalists, government representatives and members of the golf business are often on different sides of an issue. So it was not exactly par for the course when a group of them met in 1995 to begin hammering out a set of guidelines for building and operating environmentally friendly golf courses. The result of their labors, “Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States,” was published last spring.
Surely, if a group as diverse as this could find so much to agree on, something is there for cities and counties developing or running municipal golf courses to learn.
The principles were developed by a committee of 25 people from 16 groups, such as the U.S. EPA, the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), the United States Golf Association (USGA), Audubon International and the National Wildlife Federation. The representatives aimed to identify general environmental measures — beyond those required by law — that would be applicable nationwide.
Bill Love, a course designer and ASGCA member who helped develop the “Environmental Principles,” encourages course owners to look for chances to implement such measures. Once permitting requirements are met, he says, “it’s very easy to exceed the regulations and do all kinds of things that increase the environmental compatibility of the course.”
The principles offer a number of ideas to consider in the planning, design and construction of new courses. As in most other local government efforts, stakeholder involvement and public education are important elements from the start of a new course project. The principles recommend conducting informational sessions and seeking input early and throughout the process from local groups.
In the design stage, installation of irrigation systems that reuse wastewater may be an option, depending on factors such as soil, climate and groundwater hydrology. Considering effluent irrigation when it is “available, economically feasible and agronomically and environmentally acceptable” is encouraged.
Overall, the design should emphasize irrigation, drainage and retention systems that promote efficient use of water and protection of water quality. Preservation of habitat for wildlife and aquatic species and use of native and/or naturalized grasses, which may be beneficial by requiring less water and chemical treatment, should also be part of the design.
Qualified contractors with experience specifically in golf course construction are critical. Having the superintendent for the new course on board by the time the bulldozers crank up is also a good idea; he or she may point out steps during construction that enable more environmentally friendly maintenance later on.
Controlling sediment during construction is vital to reduce the project’s impact on topsoil, water resources, wildlife and plants. Along with common erosion-control tools like haybales and silt fences, proper scheduling of construction and turf establishment also plays a role.
The idea is to minimize the time during which the ground is exposed to rain and wind, according to ASGCA President Denis Griffiths. Construction can be sequenced according to growing periods, and golf holes can be grassed throughout the project rather than all at once. Griffiths says this approach is becoming more common, as is the selection of grasses based on their germination times.
Many of the measures that new golf course designs can incorporate are also possibilities for local governments to consider at existing municipal courses. Effluent irrigation, native or naturalized grasses and habitat preservation may be appropriate depending on specific conditions at existing courses.
Most courses, for example, are likely to have room for habitat projects, since around 70 percent of courses’ land is out-of-play, according to Kimberly Erusha, director of education for the USGA’s Green Section and one of the committee members who worked to develop the “Environmental Principles.” Portions of out-of-play areas can be designated as “no-mow” zones to encourage wildlife nesting.
In addition to preserving or creating habitat, no-mow zones can save time and money through reduced maintenance. Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) is an excellent source of ideas for habitat projects, as well as for water protection and conservation.
Participants in the program submit a description of their golf courses and resources, according to Marla Briggs, an ecologist with the program. In turn, they receive a detailed report with a wide range of suggested environmental measures; participants implement these measures in order to receive certification.
Briggs mentions a long list of possible steps, from planting butterfly and hummingbird gardens to leaving woodland understory and dead trees in place. Leaving vegetative buffers around bodies of water, creating brush piles and installing bird feeders and nesting boxes can also help to support various wildlife species.
Additionally, the ACSP can help with efforts to reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals in course maintenance. Such chemical use has been a focus of criticism and a major soft spot in the argument that golf courses are environmentally positive land uses.
The principles recognize the importance of this issue as well and endorse the use of Integrated Plant Management (IPM) as a step in the right direction. In the principles’ lingo, IPM is a slightly broader approach than Integrated Pest Management (also known as IPM in today’s grounds-care alphabet soup). The basic steps in the IPM approach are:
identifying the pest problem;
determining the amount of damage that can be tolerated;
attempting to change the conditions causing the problem; and
choosing control measures if necessary. Non-chemical controls like natural pest enemies are preferable; chemical controls should be used as a last resort, according to the principles.
If chemicals must be used, basic steps like following label directions and storing chemicals properly are important. Superintendents are also urged to monitor soil conditions regularly and to support the continuing education of employees who regularly apply chemicals.
Griffiths argues that developing an IPM plan is essential. The plan should be long-term, with specifics that can be adjusted as the golf course evolves. It may mean that the course, though well-maintained, will not always be 100 percent green and free of weeds.
The fact that some golfers may be unhappy with “blemishes” on the course can be an obstacle, Briggs cautions. “One of the things that makes the ACSP difficult to [implement] is golfers’ attitudes,” she says. “You have to educate your golfers about the value of doing these projects.”
But golfers who are convinced of this value often take pride in environmental measures. For example, golfers at the municipal Hindman Park Golf Course in Little Rock, Ark., brag that their course is the state’s only fully certified participant in the Audubon program, according to Superintendent John Miller. Miller and his crew have put up around 40 nesting boxes for ducks and other birds, especially mosquito-hungry martins. They have created no-mow zones along creeks and some rough areas, and last year planted 100 fruit trees like apples, peaches and cherries.
In each of the next four years, Miller intends to plant 100 fruit trees which will be left to grow without any chemical treatment. Colorful blossoms and fruit for birds and wildlife are the intended benefits of this project.
Miller says that while he does use some chemicals in maintaining the course, he has a fairly high tolerance for pests. In other words, he puts up with things that do not threaten the course’s health, though the grounds may look less-than-perfect at times.
At the Heron Lakes Golf Course in Portland, Ore., Superintendent Jesse Goodling has taken a similar attitude. “We can tolerate a few pests,” he says, depending on factors like weather and time of year.
Goodling monitors water quality in lakes and ditches at the course, which is owned by the city and fully certified in the Audubon program. He has also put up about 30 nesting boxes and 4 bat boxes, created about 40 acres of no-mow zones and established five-foot vegetative buffers around lakes.
“One of the driving factors for us is that, nowadays, the public is more environmentally sensitive, and I think the public demands that we be better stewards of our property,” he says.
Superintendent Rich Roth has taken some interesting steps at the City of Cocoa Beach Country Club, a municipal facility on Florida’s Atlantic coast. In gaining full ACSP certification for the course, Roth has focused on allowing vegetative buffers to grow up around lakes and spraying chemicals no closer than 20 feet to the lakes.
Roth also sprays chemicals only when a specific problem exists, rather than in anticipation of problems. “There was a tendency in the past for a lot of courses, especially those with big budgets, to spray on a preventive basis,” he says.
Mole crickets are common pests at the course. To combat them, Roth is trying nematodes, tiny organisms that attack the crickets, as well as injection of chemicals directly into the soil. If a thunderstorm hits right after application, these injected chemicals do not run off into waterways.
No-mow zones — rather than “wall-to-wall manicuring” — and the use of treated city wastewater for irrigation have also boosted the Cocoa Beach course’s environmental friendliness. Finally, Roth has installed nesting boxes and bat boxes and used crushed coquina (local seashells) rather than asphalt in building the course’s new cart paths. The coquina allows water to drain through while staying in place fairly well (the paths also cost about $20,000 less than asphalt paths would have, according to Roth).
It is common sense, really, that is behind many such efforts to limit damage to the environment by golf courses, according to Griffiths. “It’s not really rocket science,” he says. Steps such as leaving strips of native grass between fairways to limit erosion or dragging logs into the woods to decay rather than burning them require minimal thought and effort.
These are steps that more and more golf course designers, builders and superintendents are willing to pursue. Many superintendents, for example, are constantly looking for ways to further their educations and increase the environmental friendliness of their maintenance practices.
Much of the burden, then, is on local officials to encourage measures like those described in the “Environmental Principles” at municipal courses. The payoff can be facilities that provide more enjoyable venues for golfers, outdoor classrooms for school groups and a boost in civic pride for communities at large.
For More Information
The following are some of the groups and representatives who helped to draft the “Environmental Principles”:
American Society of Golf Course Architects Bill Love
P.O. Box 510
College Park, MD 20741
Audubon International Ron Dodson, Jean Mackay or Marla Briggs
46 Rarick Rd.
Selkirk, NY 12158
Center for Resource Management Paul Parker
1104 E. Ashton Ave. #210
Salt Lake City, UT 84106
Golf Course Superintendents Association of America Joe O’Brien
1421 Research Park Dr.
Lawrence, KS 66049
National Wildlife Federation Sharon Newsome
529 14th St., NW, #452
Washington, DC 20045
U.S. EPA Phil Oshida
401 M Street, SW (4502F)
Washington, D.C. 20460
United States Golf Association Kimberly Erusha
P.O. Box 708
Far Hills, NJ 07931