Driven by cost and conscience, Oregon's golf courses are going green
Torsten Kjellstrand, The OregonianJuly 17, 2009 07:00AM
It may be that golf's swing mantra -- keep your head down -- keeps players focused on birdies, not birds. But whether golfers notice or not, when the gallery along the ninth fairway at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City includes a dive-bombing kestrel and a redtail hawk, it's apparent that change is making the turn.
Specifically, golf is getting greener. Across the United States, but especially in the Pacific Northwest and particularly in the Portland area, golf courses are adopting environmentally sustainable practices. They are using far less water, fertilizer and weed-killer than before and employing grass varieties that can thrive without meticulous care.
It's become par for the course for golf superintendents to leave dead trees for habitat, encourage native pollinators and maintain wildlife corridors. The courses themselves, often veined with creeks and wetlands, have taken on new roles as community protectors by receiving, storing and controlling storm water. Water hazards -- where wayward shots go to drown -- double as homes for ducks, geese, turtles and frogs.
Reasons for the change include money and apprehension about being targeted for lawsuits or government regulation. But many golf course superintendents also say sustainability is an ethos that has taken root in settings once known for entitlement, exclusion and manipulation of the environment.
The turnabout hasn't escaped the notice of environmental groups, which welcome a partnership with properties that often are the largest expanse of green space in urban areas -- and properties that were once a primary target of environmentalists' ire.
Nineteen Oregon golf courses are certified as sanctuaries by Audubon International, based in New York state. The certification process examines wildlife management and habitat, water conservation and quality practices, chemical use and community outreach, among other tests.
"If it's a certified sanctuary, you're looking at a place that has looked at its environmental footprint, made a plan, taken action and documented their results," says program manager Joellen Lampman.
The Portland group Salmon-Safe is developing its own checklist of measurable standards for golf courses. Meeting them would allow a course to boast that it's been certified as a place where the course management practices don't harm fish.
"From the work we've done so far, we've seen some extraordinary stewardship in place," director Dan Kent says.
Cost a big motivator
It wasn't always that way. Golf courses, often 150 acres or larger, are known for prodigious water use. Even the most environmentally conscious courses can use 300,000 gallons a night during the summer. In the past, some courses put blue dye in ponds and lakes to make them look more appealing and poured on the fertilizer and pesticide to create lush, weed-free, uniform playing surfaces.
But management practices have gradually changed over the past 20 years.
"You can see the writing on the wall," says Jesse Goodling, superintendent at Portland's city-owned Heron Lakes Golf Course. "You do need to be proactive and have all your ducks in a row -- and do the right thing, too."
Cost is a big motivator. Water, fertilizer and pesticides are expensive and require labor; reducing their use saves money. Better irrigation technology and less toxic products have helped as well. Heron Lakes has reduced its pesticide use by one-third to one-half over the past five years, Goodling says, and is transitioning to using a blend of bentgrass on its putting surfaces instead of poa annua, which needs more care.
Course workers have planted trees, let the rough grow longer to shelter wildlife, reduced watering on non-playing areas and established buffers around ponds. Nearly 60 heron nests have been counted, and herons literally walk the fairways at the facility's two courses. Osprey, bald eagles, river otters, deer, coyotes, raccoons and other animals co-exist with plaid-panted duffers, Goodling says.
Golf organizations began researching environmental practices in the late 1980s, says Greg Lyman, environmental programs manager with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, based in Lawrence, Kan. The work reflected society's increased questioning of the impact of products we use in our homes, yards and workplaces.
"Where do all the inputs go, how are they managed and what's the best way to handle them in a responsible fashion?" he asks. "It's the same evolution we're seeing in society in general.
"Golf courses understand that being proactive environmentally and pushing the envelope on sustainability is directly linked to the success of the industry and the game," Lyman says. "It's a game played on a plant. We have to do it responsibly, otherwise this is a shrinking business."
Sidebar: On the green
Unless you're talking about putting, using "green" and "golf" in the same sentence may be counter-intuitive -- like when the club pro says "swing easy" to hit the ball far. And although golf hasn't been known as especially enlightened when it comes to sustainable practices, that's changing. Course superintendents and environmental groups list ways that courses can become better stewards:
- Avoid wasting water by using computer-controlled sprinklers, which allow selective watering of spots that need it rather than drenching the entire course.
- Maintain no-spray, no-mow buffer zones around water hazards to help birds, frogs and turtles survive.
- Use grass seed blends and native plants that require less fertilizer and pesticide to thrive.
- Encourage birds to take up residence by leaving dead trees standing.
- Develop unmanaged wildlife corridors between holes and along streams.
- Educate golfers with signs that point out habitat and explain management practices.
Sidebar: A national model
At Stone Creek, the redtail hawk allows course superintendent David Phipps to approach within 40 feet on a golf cart and snap a few pictures before flapping off for another perch.
Owned by Clackamas County, the course has emerged as an environmental model for courses across the country. Under Phipps, the course won Environmental Leaders in Golf merit and regional awards from Golf Digest magazine from 2004-07, and in 2008 was named the nation's best public course in the same award category.
Stone Creek was named 2004-05 "Cooperator of the Year" by the Clackamas County Soil & Water Conservation District, and is one of Audubon International's certified sanctuaries. In June, Links magazine named Stone Creek to the eighth spot of its top 10 environmentally friendly courses, finishing one spot ahead of California's famed Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Links magazine cited Stone Creek's wildlife corridors, integrated pest management program, limited pesticide use, irrigation practices, pond buffer zones and its twice-annual water testing program. All the work is done voluntarily, Phipps says.
Driving the cart, Phipps points out some of the course's sustainable highlights. To save water, Stone Creek is using fine fescue grass seed blends on its fairways. Its 1,200 sprinkler heads can be individually programmed to put water only where it's needed.
"I think courses can be over-watered pretty easily," Phipps says. Reducing irrigation "makes the roots search for water, they go deeper, and the deeper they go the more drought-resistant they are."
Bubbling aerators, not chemicals, control algae bloom in ponds. Dead trees are left standing to attract insects, which in turn attract birds. On a bare hillside, Phipps points out holes that serve as underground nests for six species of native bees. A nearby sign explains the significance to passing golfers. Each year, Phipps and volunteer experts lead sixth-graders on a birding tour of the course.
When burrowing voles posed a problem, Phipps' crew erected a hawk perch in tall grass. The predators control the rodents. Bass in the ponds control mosquitoes and serve as osprey food. Twenty-two bird boxes are scattered about the course. Wildlife corridors of brush and trees allow larger animals to pass through the course undisturbed.
As if on cue, a doe and fawn rise from tall grass near the fourth-hole tee. The doe trots off warily, but the fawn steps within a few feet of Phipps before realizing he's not family and bounding away.
Phipps is an avid golfer and counts a hole-in-one on Stone Creek's second hole as a personal highlight. But days like this, when golfers share space with hawks and deer, are a bonus.
"I think this is half the beauty of the golf course," he says. "This is the fun part of the job."
--Eric Mortenson; email@example.com