Stewards of the Land

By | June 1st, 2010

As club and resort properties take leadership roles in environmental initiatives, they’re not only creating a more positive image, but also becoming more efficient operators.

For years, golf course facilities had reputations as monuments of toxic waste that spared no chemical, fertilizer or water application to produce lush carpets of green grass. Beyond the public relations problems that sprouted from this image, these practices also came up a club or two short as a business model.

Today, many club and resort properties have implemented a bagful of more environmentally friendly maintenance practices. In the process, they’ve discovered that becoming leaders in sustainability efforts will not only score points for providing a benefit for the entire community, it will also translate into more green of the monetary variety, in the form of significant savings in operating costs.

“Sustainability is the capacity to endure. It takes into account the balance between economics, the environment and the community,” says Greg Lyman, Environmental Programs Director of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). “If we make decisions with those three elements in mind, we can triple the bottom line.

“There’s no reward for environmental bankruptcy,” Lyman adds. “We have to focus on improvements that can save money.”

Terry Stratton Superintendent at Little River Inn Golf & Tennis Resort, does not use ground water for irrigation, as the golf course captures winter rains in reservoirs.

Terry Stratton, Golf Course Superintendent at Little River (Calif.) Inn Golf & Tennis Resort, notes that while environmental stewardship efforts have been underway at some club and golf course properties for about 20 years, the recent surge of the “green” movement has provided real momentum, and payoffs, for full-scale sustainability initiatives. “Golf courses are becoming more marketable as being good for ‘eco-tourists’ who want to go to a place that fits in with their philosophies,” Stratton notes.

At Bayville GC natural areas buffer vegetation to ensure water quality and erosion control

Easy Fixes
Beyond major upgrades of golf course irrigation systems, to make them more efficient and use less water, many sustainability practices are inexpensive and easy to accomplish.

“We’ve tried to do as many things as we could that were pretty much free,” says Stratton, who had a budget of $182,000 at Little River’s nine-hole property last year. “Everything we do is voluntary. It’s important for courses to take the initiative and not wait for a mandate from a federal agency.”

Little River, the national resort and overall winner of the 2009 Environmental Leader in Golf Award from the GCSAA and Golf Digest, has cut its water usage by about 50 percent. The property has also reduced pesticide expenses and usage by 75 percent, by treating weeds on greens only, instead of throughout the property.

Stratton has also established wildlife corridors, increased natural areas, and created 20-foot “no-treatment zones” around water features. Tree trimming allows more light and air to reach the greens.

Sustainability efforts at The Ridge at Castle Pines North in Castle Rock, Colo., a Troon Golf property, include updated irrigation software, increased hand watering, conversion of two acres of rough to native areas, implementation of energy-saving practices, and construction of birdhouses. The Colorado course has Best Management Practices and an Integrated Pest Management system in place, but is now going further to analyze all facets of its operations and their effect on the environment.

By performing an “environmental risk assessment” of the facility, explains David Soltvedt, CGCS, Director of Agronomy, the maintenance staff can set a baseline for its operations and make adjustments accordingly. “It takes time and resources, but it helps the facility and the perception from the public,” notes Soltvedt.

The Castle Pines North golf course, which is in a residential area, is a wildlife habitat for coyotes, rabbits, deer and elk. “[The wildlife] gives us a little bit of extra work in the spring,” Soltvedt reports. “But amid all the public development, they choose to come here.”

Water usage has become “a much more scrutinized practice” that now also gets special assessment, he adds, including analysis of how the club’s course and grounds crew washes equipment, where all of the water and fertilizer goes, and how close sprayers get to water sources.

“We use evapotranspiration as our baseline for watering, as well as the weather forecast and soil monitoring,” Soltvedt says.

New Ways to Look Cool
At Bayville Golf Club in Virginia Beach, Va., the course and grounds crew has been striving to “minimize the high-input turf areas and maximize the low-input natural areas,” reports Cutler Robinson Jr., CGCS, Director of Golf Course Operations.

Using rain sensors, soil moisture meters and evapotranspiration rates, TPC Twin Cities’ Roger Stewart was able to reduce the golf course’s water usage by 28 percent between 2007 to 2008.

“That does two things: It saves money, and it looks cool,” Robinson says.

“At most golf courses, the nutrient management is well-controlled to create lean turf,” he adds. “When nutrient levels are low, it makes the turf more playable. That’s good for the game, and good for the environment.”

Nationwide surveys among golf course superintendents confirm that the golf industry as a whole is becoming much more adept at managing water resources.

“Water use on golf courses is a low percentage of total water use and of irrigation water use, compared to other sectors,” reports the GCSAA’s Lyman. “Golf courses use water from various sources, and potable water use is available at about 14 percent of golf courses. Nationally, reclaimed or recycled water is used on about 12 percent of golf courses. We also found that more golf courses would use recycled water if it were made available from local municipalities.”

Roger Stewart

Other eco-friendly practices that are gaining favor include changing mowing patterns to save energy, switching from gas carts to electric, and irrigation system upgrades that eliminate wall-to-wall water usage.

TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn., winner of the GCSAA/Golf Digest 2009 Environmental Leader in Golf Award in the national private category, has been phasing out its wall-to-wall irrigation system over the past several years. “Computerized irrigation helps us pinpoint our water usage,” reports Roger Stewart, CGCS, the club’s Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operations.

TPC Twin Cities is home to coyotes, eagles, muskrats, red foxes, several species of birds, and turtles, among other wildlife.

Shoreline restoration for the many water features at TPC Twin Cities has been accomplished with the use of aquatic plants. Instead of mowing naturalized turf, the staff now burns these native areas, which cover about 25 percent of the acreage, once every three years.

Changes like these, notes Lyman, “may change the look of a course, but [not] the playability.”

Voluntary environmental stewardship programs work, he adds, and properties with sustainability initiatives have implemented an average of about seven improvements in a 10-year period. But there is much that can still be done, he notes.

“We need to strive to be even more efficient with water use,” Lyman says. “We need to continue to work to improve or expand the diversity of habitats on golf courses. We need to continue to strive to protect water resources in the areas of nutrient management and pesticide use, through the use of Integrated Pest Management programs. And we need to conserve energy.“

The good news, he repeats, is that “some of those advances can actually save money, which is the key to sustainable golf courses.”

It is true that with many environmental initiatives, the axiom still applies that you have to spend money to make money. But even the need for a significant upfront investment should not deter properties from pursuing environmental objectives, notes Teri Harris, Senior Director of Development for the Environmental Institute for Golf (the philanthropic organization of the GCSAA). As with any other capital project, she notes, “a business decision can be made to plan for [environmental needs].”

Going Local
From playing tour guide to serving as expert consultants for initiatives that can have an impact far beyond a property’s boundaries to also provide community-wide benefits, the duties of superintendents now often extend to outreach efforts that are as plentiful, and as important, as their environmentally related course maintenance practices.

Since joining the Audubon program The Ridge at Castle Pines, led by David Soltvedt, has reduced its overall maintained turf acreage by two acres, constructed bluebird nest boxes, and become certified in water conservation.

At the Little River (Calif.) Inn Golf & Tennis Resort, Stratton invites high school students to tour the course as part of the local school district’s Sustainability Day. While being shown around, the students learn about local wildlife and water conservation. “We’re targeting a new generation to think differently about golf courses,” Stratton explains.

Robinson also conducts tours of the Bayville GC course to showcase that property’s environmental efforts. And staff members of TPC Twin Cities visit local elementary schools once a year, to talk to students about the environment, wildlife and plant growth. Television coverage of PGA Tour events held at courses like TPC Twin Cities can also help to spread good words, Stewart notes, by showing viewers the various wildlife species that live on the golf courses. “The wildlife at each Tour stop exists because things are being done to protect the environment,” he adds.

As the landscape management expert for Lynnhaven River Now, a grassroots organization that was started by local residents to improve water quality, Bayville’s Robinson also educates homeowners about lawn care.

“We tell homeowners how to select proper plants, and explain the rationale behind the use of non-native plants that require fertilizer,” he reports. “We encourage people to use the right fertilizer for their turf [and stress] that it’s not sustainable to avoid the use of fertilizer, because that leads to weed invasion and other problems.”

David Soltvedt

Golf course stakeholders have also learned the value of developing strong relationships with lawmaking officials and regulators, on both state and national levels. TPC Twin Cities’ First Assistant Superintendent, Andrew Carlson, now visits state legislators several times a year to help shape public policy on golf course-related issues. Lyman notes that several GCSAA chapters—including Georgia; the Chesapeake Bay watershed (which includes Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York); Minnesota; Michigan; Nevada; California, and Colorado—have proved especially effective in forging productive alliances with policy makers to help positively change the perceptions about where clubs and courses should be positioned in the environmental landscape.

On a national level, the golf industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have collaborated on sustainability issues since 1995. At that time the EPA founded its Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program, and the GCSAA and the United States Golf Association (USGA) joined the initiative.

The EPA also offers technical advice, and awards Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP) grants to golf industry partners including the GCSAA, USGA and Audubon International, says Tom Brennan, Chief of the EPA Environmental Stewardship Branch of the Biopesticides and Pollution Program Division with the Office of Pesticide Programs.

“The golf industry, in my opinion, is a very organized and a very progressive industry,” adds Brennan. “When it comes to environmental stewardship, the industry has adopted a position of total transparency, collected real data and put its findings into play.”

In addition to how they’re working directly with club and course operators to help them pursue their new environmental objectives, manufacturers of golf course maintenance products and equipment are providing research and development dollars for large-scale initiatives, notes Harris of the Environmental Institute for Golf.

“We have the entire industry behind us,” she says. “All facets of the game have come together and recognized the importance and value of this.”

TPC Twin Cities’ staff annually visits a local elementary school to teach fifth graders the basics of turfgrasses and seed biology.

The Ever-Present Challenges
Despite the gathering momentum and recent strides that have been made, the EPA’s Brennan believes getting the word out to the public about sustainability efforts will continue to be a challenge.

Course superintendents also recognize that educating the public about their eco-friendly initiatives will be an ongoing process.

The burden of proof, however, is on the professionals who have to be more than cheerleaders for their teams.

“If anyone’s really serious about making a positive change, that requires good listening skills,” says Bayville’s Robinson. “We need to know what our communities’ needs are, and the public needs to know the facts.”

Members of the golf industry need to ensure that they not only get the right message out, but do so in an understandable way, adds Stewart.

And golf properties must continue to be prepared for further changes, Harris says. “There will continue to be regulation,” she says, “and we as an industry must stick with a decision to take a proactive approach.”

“We are simply asking the industry to commit to continued improvement,” Lyman adds. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the environmental spectrum. We want to provide leadership to make improvements, and we want to measure that change over time. We want to communicate the success story of golf.”

After all, it’s a great story to tell.