Golf Course Superintendent Kevin Komer leads the effort to launch a new golf course environmental program in Vermont.
Many golf course superintendents say they have the best office in the world. When Golf Course Superintendent Kevin Komer of Stowe (Vt.) Mountain Golf Club surveys the 18 holes that he oversees, however, he sees “a living classroom.” Is it any wonder that Komer, President of the Vermont Golf Course Superintendents Association, is leading an effort to establish a new golf course environmental program?
In March, the Vermont GCSA held a Golf Course Industry Sustainability Summit where members of the Department of Environmental Conservation launched the new program. The initiative, part of the Vermont Business Environmental Partnership, recognizes Vermont businesses, including golf courses, that adopt environmentally sustainable practices to reduce waste and to conserve energy, water and other natural resources.
Komer recently spoke to us about his efforts to get the program underway.
Q: How did the Golf Course Industry Sustainability Summit get started?
A: The summit was created this year because of a few different issues that recently developed. One was that the Vermont Golf Course Superintendents Association (VTGCSA) was approached by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to assist in developing criteria specific to golf courses that could be used in the Vermont Business Environmental Partnership (VBEP) program. Currently, there are criteria for marinas, hotels, restaurants, and resorts. The VTGCSA did not hesitate to accept this invitation.
When the specifics were finalized, we all felt that a seminar would be the appropriate forum for rolling out this new program. The VTGCSA also felt it was important to invite the Vermont PGA and the Vermont Golf Association to the summit, because this program will benefit the entire industry of golf in Vermont.
Along with rolling out the program, the VTGCSA decided to add a few speakers that would discuss topics that will help golf courses meet the criteria set forth in the program. The decision to develop this environmental summit was made easier by results from a 2010 survey that was sent to all Vermont superintendents. When asked what topics they would like to have discussed at our monthly meetings, the largest percentage was environmental issues.
Club Website: www.stowe.com
Stowe Mountain Resort (“A Place for All Seasons, C&RB, February 2009), became the first U.S. ski resort to earn Audubon International Sustainable Community Certification, 2010
Golf Digest Top 10 in America’s Best New Public Golf Courses, 2008
Golf Magazine Top 10 New Courses in the U.S., 2007
Finally, at the same time the VTGCSA was working on the program with the DEC, there was, and still is, a bill in the Vermont legislature restricting fertilizer use. The VTGCSA responded to this by testifying in front of a House of Representatives committee on how golf courses operate in a responsible manner when it comes to nutrient management. Our testimony was welcomed. As a result, it seems like the golf industry will be given a special consideration and will have to submit a Nutrient Management Plan to the Department of Agriculture, as part of our current Pesticide Management Plan. We feel this is a great compromise that will benefit Vermont golf in the long run.
The reason I bring this up is that the whole experience of working with the lawmakers opened my eyes to how little the general public still knows about our industry. And much of what they do know is still largely viewed as negative. The initiation of the VBEP for golf courses will help the golf industry in Vermont spread the good word about how golf is a responsible small business in our communities. It is my goal to make this summit an annual event.
Q: What kind of criteria do Vermont golf courses have to meet to become environmental partners in the program?
A: It’s a two-part program. The first part is based on fulfilling the eight-part achievement form. The first seven are consistent with all other programs (marinas, hotels, restaurants, and resorts), and the eighth part is specific to that industry.
The first seven include:
- developing an environmental policy statement;
- creating an environmental team and scheduling an on-site visit with the DEC;
- eliminating or reducing one form of hazardous or solid waste, wastewater discharge, or an air emission;
- implementing energy efficiency measures;
- reusing or recycling three forms of solid or hazardous waste;
- purchasing for use three products that have environmentally friendly attributes, along with developing an Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Policy;
- and finally, promoting the VBEP by either referring another company to the partnership or by marketing the partnership through your own marketing efforts.
The eighth part is to implement at a minimum 14 Best Management Practices from among 29 options.
The second tier is to become a “Vermont Green Links.” The Green Links designation is for VBEP partner-level golf courses that, in addition to meeting the partner standards, can also demonstrate compliance with environmental regulations after receiving a comprehensive on-site assessment conducted by the Environmental Assistance Office staff. In addition, Green Links courses must commit to future environmental initiatives by developing and annually updating a concise, one-page environmental management plan. As an alternative, the Green Links designation can also be achieved by obtaining and maintaining certification in the Audubon Sanctuary program.
Q: How have you taken the lead in the program?
A: As the president of the VTGCSA, I feel a commitment to provide our members with the best tools possible to promote themselves and the sport of golf. This program is just that. So, it’s success is very important to me. The development of this program was a group effort with several superintendents and the DEC. My job was to keep the ball rolling and to bring it to fruition. The creation of the summit was my responsibility. It was a lot of work finding and coordinating all of the speakers, but it was well worth it.
Q: How does it benefit golf courses to be part of the program?
A: The benefit is two-fold. One, it sets things in motion for a golf facility to become more aware of its operation and to take a closer look at the current protocols and procedures. Becoming an environmental steward is simply smart business. To that end, it is a move to becoming a sustainable business that will be successful long into the future. Secondly, it is a good marketing tool. This program demonstrates that your golf facility is on the cutting edge of golf and that you are a responsible small business in the community.
Q: What type of environmental initiatives have you taken at the Stowe Mountain Golf Club?
A: Stowe Mountain Golf Club is the first in Vermont and third in New England to obtain Audubon International Signature Sanctuary status. We became certified in May of 2007. This program is the gold standard of environmental stewardship in golf. It is a very comprehensive program that includes the planning, construction, and management of the golf course. Some initiatives include limited pesticide use, extensive recycling in the maintenance facility and on the golf course, creating habitat on the course by leaving dead trees or creating brush piles, seeding out-of-play areas with true native species, and installing a closed-loop equipment wash system to eliminate runoff. Those are just a few examples of what we do.
Q: What is the property as a whole doing to go green, and what is your role in those efforts?
A: Protecting water quality is of highest importance. Stowe Mountain Resort is on top of the watershed and with this comes great responsibility, because what we do here has the potential to affect water quality downstream. The resort and the golf course conduct annual water quality testing. This data helps us understand if we need to alter current practices or to continue how we are operating. If golf courses throughout the world can prove that we do not negatively affect water quality, then we will win the debate of whether golf is good or bad for the environment.
Q: How have your sustainability efforts helped save costs?
A: That is the big question, isn’t it? I would say that my management philosophy is based on being responsible. These responsibilities are based on using less of everything and still producing great conditions. That is the balance that needs to be attained. The only exception to this rule is sand. You could never apply enough sand to golf course turf.
Q: Have they created any new costs, and if so, what are they?
A: I use composted poultry manure to feed the grass. The use of this fertilizer is slightly more expensive than conventional fertilizer.
Q: How have your environmental programs helped you become a better manager?
A: For better or for worse, I question everything I do. There is a serious balance of running a golf course and being an environmental steward. For me, my philosophy has always been that I feel golf is good for society. So, if we are going to have golf, then let’s manage the golf course responsibly. Look at all aspects of what you do, and know the outcome. If you want to clear all the underbrush between two golf holes, then you should know how you are impacting that ecosystem. Should you leave a few dead trees for the cavity-nesting birds, or should you leave large woody debris on the forest floor for salamander habitat? I think it is all about being well-educated about your property.
Q: How are you getting other golf courses involved in the program?
A: Our goal was to make this program as simple as possible. That doesn’t mean downgrading the requirements, because it will take effort to fulfill this program. But more along the lines of making the program attainable for any golf course, no matter if it is a low-budget public course or a high-end private course. In the end, it is all viewed as golf by the general public. The goal is to start turning the perception of golf towards a positive light, and environmental stewardship is one step in the right direction.
Q: What happens during an on-site visit by a VBEP representative?
A: The first visit is focused on non-compliance and on helping to point out to the superintendent the things that should be occurring in the maintenance. These include things like proper secondary containment for liquids, spill response protocols, hazardous waste handling, proper signage, etc.
The second visit to become a “Vermont Green Links” will be focused on seeing if you followed through on the first visit. The DEC will not allow a business to become an environmental leader if it is not in compliance, period.
Q: What types of resources are available to golf courses to help them meet the standards to become a business environmental partner?
A: I would say the list is endless. More specifically, Greg Lyman at the Environmental Institute for Golf is a great resource. Greg has his finger on the pulse of almost all of the sustainability issues in golf right now. As far as land management goes, don’t be afraid to contact your local watershed district manager. These organizations are quick to assist landowners when it comes to water quality or habitat enhancement. In Vermont, we have a group called Efficiency Vermont. They are subsidized to assist businesses with conserving electricity.
Q: How do the criteria for golf courses compare to those for other businesses?
A: As I mentioned earlier, the first seven steps are the same. Moving into the eighth step is the differentiator. I feel that golf is much more dynamic in that, on the one hand, all businesses should make sure there are drain plugs in their dumpsters or that a spill is taken care of properly. But then at the same time, the golf course can leave a snag such as a dead tree and get credit for it. It is a much more diverse set of criteria.
Q: What kind of leadership role should golf courses play in environmental sustainability?
A: Most golf course superintendents are well-educated. Use that education and teach. Bring people on the golf course property and teach them about some sustainable effort that is going on. Don’t be afraid to spread the good word about how golf courses are a social, economic, and environmental asset to the community.
At Stowe Mountain Golf Club, over the past three years the fifth-grade class in town does a half-day field trip to the golf course and we teach them real-world management practices that help protect water quality. Most of the time the adult chaperons leave more impressed about what we are doing than the kids do. It’s the perfect way to use the golf course as a “living classroom.”