Valley’s golf courses getting green
The Aspen Times
ASPEN ” For years now, golf courses have been subject to criticism for their use of resources.
Nationally, 18-hole golf courses apply about 780 pounds of pesticides to their courses per year, according to a 2002 study funded by the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment. In an average year, according to the study, a Colorado golf course can use about 30 to 65 million gallons of water to maintain all turf areas.
“The perception is that golf courses take up a great deal of land and habitat, pollute water and soil with turf chemicals, and use an inordinate amount of water, a particular concern in the western United States,” explains a 2004 Colorado State University Cooperative Extension paper titled “Resource and Environmental Aspects of Golf in Colorado.”
But since 1991, the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), in association with Audubon International (AI) ” a nonprofit not associated with the National Audubon Society ” has been fighting that reputation through a program called the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program (ACS).
Certification requires courses to make changes in six areas, according to ACS program manager Joellen Zah. Those changes include chemical use, wildlife habitat management, water conservation, water-quality management, outreach and education, and environmental planning. The certification generally takes between one and three years to achieve.
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Participating golf courses pay $200 a year to be a part of the program.
Two Aspen golf courses have been certified by Audubon International ” the Maroon Creek Club and the Aspen Golf Course.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, the list of ACS clubs also includes the Aspen Glen Club in Carbondale, the Roaring Fork Club in Basalt, and most recently, the Snowmass Club.
But while the ACS program requires golf courses to take measures to mitigate their environmental impact, even ACS golf courses irrigate, use fertilizers and pesticides, and encourage extensive human use of a land parcel (thus greatly reducing use of it by wildlife).
So how green are Aspen’s greenest golf courses?
AI’s original mission was to help entities such as towns or cities become more sustainable, said Zah. But in the 1980s, the nonprofit found “people weren’t ready” to commit their communities to environmental protection.
But an unlikely group of people were: golf course superintendents.
The first superintendent to find AI was looking for an environmentally-friendly way to discourage its resident skunks. Word traveled, and soon several courses had sought the nonprofit’s counsel.
By 1991, AI had joined with the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) to offer the ACS Golf program.
The program has enrolled 13 percent of the golf courses in the United States, a number Zah sees as an accomplishment, given that there has been very little marketing of the program. However, it is well below the nonprofit’s stated goal of enrolling fifty percent of United States golf courses by 2007.
Moreover, enrolled golf courses are under no obligation to actually be more environmental, though the assumption is that they are in the process of seeking ACS certification.
According to Zah, only four percent of the enrolled golf courses have completed all the steps to be certified a “cooperative sanctuary.”
To be certified, a golf course first works with AI to create a set of environmental goals.
As the goals are completed, the superintendent self-reports to AI. AI does not visit sites to confirm their reporting before certifying them, said Zah, though sometimes the agency does “random” site visits.
The golf course receives ACS certification upon completion of its goals.
Like a hybrid car that cuts carbon emissions, but not by 100 percent, ACS golf courses have taken measures ” including some significant ones ” to be more environmentally friendly. But critics argue the courses still aren’t free of environmental liability.
To protect wildlife, ACS golf courses work to provide more shoreline vegetation around water features ” to filter runoff and to provide shelter for animals ” and out-of-play areas that are left for wildlife.
However, a 2000 study by the Miistakis Institute for the Rockies warns that golf courses rarely are as wildlife-friendly as undisturbed land, noting that while “the amount of habitat alteration” does affect how much wildlife a course will sustain, human presence will negatively impact most animals.
“Some species may be attracted to, while others are displaced from, the altered habitat on a golf course, but as humans increase, habitat effectiveness is reduced for most species…Therefore, in general, there appears to be very few long-term benefits to wildlife living near a golf course,” states the study.
ACS golf courses also work to use the least-toxic pesticides and apply them using spot application rather than broadcast spraying, said Zah. Whenever possible, they use pesticides in curative rather than preventative ways, she added.
But AI does not go so far as to ask ACS golf courses to promise to cease using pesticides.
In most areas of the country, said Zah, it is not possible to have a good golf course surface without spraying. The handful of pesticide-free golf courses in the country either have a huge maintenance budget or a clientele willing to accept less-than-perfect conditions, she explained.
Still, the program has prompted local courses to take some creative, and in some cases significant, environmental measures.
At the Aspen Golf Club, director of golf Steve Aitken said the program spurred the golf course to track its water use more closely. Two years ago, the course installed a new irrigation system that saves approximately 15 million gallons of water a year.
Next, they’ll be changing their water source. Within two years, Aitken expects to be watering the course with treated effluent, rather than with water directly out of Castle Creek.
Using the effluent on the golf course ” rather than releasing it directly to the Roaring Fork River ” helps filter it one more time before it goes into a natural aquifer, said Aitken. Moreover, ceasing to use water from Castle Creek should raise stream flow and improve the stream’s health, he said.
The course also reduced its use of fertilizer and pesticides and enhanced cover for animals around the course’s water features.
Aitken says the course is getting the same results, or better, with its new environmental efforts. The program has pushed them to become more refined in their management, he explained.
The Maroon Creek Club has planted native vegetation between its greens and designated many of those areas as very small wildlife refuges. The areas are marked with green-tipped sticks, and in some cases signs asking golfers not to enter them, so as not to disturb the wildlife.
The course also tests water quality in Maroon Creek at the entrance and exit to the course twice a year, said Miller. He said water quality is actually better when it leaves ” arguing that the course acts as a filter.
Like the Aspen Golf Club, Maroon Creek has installed an efficient computerized-irrigation program that measures, and applies, only so much water as the course needs.
The argument that golf courses cannot be redeemed may rely upon an assumptions about what would replace them, say golf course defenders.
“People have this idea that if [land] wasn’t golf courses, it would be open space,” said Zah. “And Bambi would be playing with Thumper.”
In reality, Zah pointed out, if golf courses didn’t exist, the land they occupy most likely would house buildings.
But if recent studies can be trusted, there is no question that the average golf course does have room to improve in its environmental management. And while the ACS program may not be perfect, it can provide some guidance and monitoring.
And Zah argues that greening golf courses can change the worldviews of those who manage them and play on them.
She tells the story of one resistant superintendent who became a convert when “going green” ended up improving the course and saving it money (since the naturalized areas didn’t need to be fertilized and mowed).
He’s begun proselytizing and has now won several awards for his environmental activism. Recently, he inspired they mayor of Eufala, Alabama to work with Audubon International to green the town.
“The really exciting part of the program is that it becomes a model for the rest of the community, of what sustainable management practices look like,” said Zah.
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