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Chapter 3: Golf Course Sustainability

Sustainability is a new word that has taken hold in our everyday lexicon, used to jazz up and modernize what are, essentially, the same old marketing materials, political platforms, and sales pitches. Despite the term’s popularity, it’s clearly still not widely understood. In fact, the term “sustainable development” came into popular use in the 1990s, where it was described as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Clearly, it does not prescribe a reckless and overriding primacy of the environment that disregards the basic needs of humans and civilization. Rather, the principles of sustainability recognize that competing, but legitimate needs on all sides should be carefully balanced for continuing viability now and for the future.

General sustainability principles include the urgent necessity to steward the earth, its resources and environment for an unlimited future. To support this, golf courses must exist in harmony with nature and generate no lasting damage. That includes making choices for the lowest possible environmental impact, consuming only what can be readily replenished, fostering biodiversity, and supporting wildlife through proactive management.

Critically, sustainability also recognizes the necessity to conduct economically viable businesses that meet the needs of their customers with affordable and satisfying products and services. For example, golf courses should seek to offer experiences that meet the needs of the average golfer at an affordable price. Golf communities should adapt with the times and offer an array of amenities that address the needs of current and future generations. Finally, human enterprise should promote the social well-being of a community through economic activity, accessibility, and improved quality of life. Modern golf courses should be designed and managed to provide beneficial green spaces and recreational opportunities that improve quality of life in the local community. All three principles should be equally balanced. Neglecting one aspect will inevitably result in the failure of the other two.

Creating a sustainable golf course involves much more than adding a few key phrases to a developer’s website. In the last few years, for example, public concern about water consumption has shifted into high gear. The view of verdant greens surrounded by leagues of dry, dead, or drought-stunted landscape beyond the fence has focused ire on golf courses who appear to have privileged access to scarce water. Generous applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that wash into local waterways are blamed for deadly toxin levels, fish deaths, and loss of viable habitat. Today, newly constructed, sustainable golf courses are designed and managed to use less water, fewer (or no) chemicals, and to require less intense maintenance. It doesn’t hurt that lowering maintenance activities also lowers maintenance costs, which frequently occupy the top spot in the operating budget.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that the overall goal of sustainability includes the precept of economic sustainability. If your choices are likely to result in economic disaster for the course or the surrounding community, it’s time to take a step back and find another way.

It’s probably more accurate to describe embracing sustainability as: a paradigm shift in understanding and behavior as opposed to a simple matter of education. For existing communities, accommodating this paradigm shift will demand open and frequent communication. At the start, reducing maintenance staff, as well as mowing and watering schedules, looks nice on the bottom line. But, will the course continue to appeal to players as it settles into a scruffier look? Brown or yellow grass, a few insects, and the occasional weed are part and parcel of a more natural environment, but if no one is willing to play under these conditions, no course will maintain economic viability.

Whether transitioning an old course or planning a new one, it’s necessary to share the vision of sustainability. This requires continuous education of all parties, on what that means in a practical sense, in order to maintain buy-in from everyone; even as the rough gets rougher.

Sustainable design should start with identifying, preserving, and using existing ecosystems. Placing these natural resources at center stage can improve the unique character of the development and allow for less intensive and more efficient management of the course. Native flora should be retained or replanted in areas that are not in play, while native grasses should be selected for the fairways and greens since they’re far more likely to thrive in their natural habitat and require less support.

Irrigation, drainage, and retention systems should be carefully planned for efficient storage and disbursement. Questions of water quality should be addressed in advance and these systems should be incorporated into the overall aesthetic design of the course. Opportunities to reuse water should be enlisted whenever possible. Installation of vegetative buffer zones, settling ponds and other supportive features can help runoff water meet local standards for reuse.

Some municipalities are happy to work with responsible and environmentally sensitive golf course managers to control effluent from local treatment plants. This can provide an abundant water resource for irrigation and storage while creating a symbiotic relationship with the community.

Plan on using native or specially bred, drought tolerant, plants whenever possible. Fairways and greens should feature turf specimens that are adapted to local conditions, require minimum irrigation and still provide the appropriate playing characteristics. It may be impossible to perfectly satisfy all three goals, but it’s critical to strike an effective balance.

Cost savings are one of the benefits of establishing a sustainable golf course. Smaller and more naturalized fairways can both enhance the appearance of a course and minimize maintenance. Integrated Plant Management practices, including integrated pest management, focus on plant health and nutrition as a strategy to fend off attacks from disease and pests. Significant savings in manpower and chemical use can be realized from adopting this strategy alone.

Some pests can be controlled by supporting local wildlife species such as bats, purple martins, swallows, and bluebirds. Nesting boxes and other habitat support are well worth the investment. After all, who objects to a bright flock of bluebirds in the winter?

As important as it is to support local wildlife, there are some species that can become pests when they’re present in high numbers. Deer, skunks, and those pesky Canadian geese that take up residence year-round, can be managed with creative, non-harmful approaches. Noisemakers, repellents, trapping and removal, and well-trained dogs can be very effective; but are also pretty visible. Alternatively, geese can be discouraged by reducing areas of highly managed turf. Since geese don’t like to eat long, coarse grasses, establishing larger areas of unmowed meadow grassland can not only reduce geese populations naturally and without injury, but substantially improve biodiversity.

Grass clippings and other organic waste should be allowed to remain where it falls and naturally decompose. This allows nitrogen and valuable nutrients to return to the soil, reducing or eliminating the need for fertilizers. If this isn’t possible, this type of waste can be composted and used elsewhere on the course as mulch or soil amendments. Chemical and other waste, needs be disposed of according to the law and availability of local recycling facilities. Of course, if there are safe and appropriate opportunities to use recovered/diluted chemicals from washing stations, that’s a benefit.

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