LET'S START PUTTING GOLF COURSES IN PERSPECTIVE

by Whit Gibbons

April 10, 2005


With the Master’s playing out in Augusta, golf is on the minds of many. People have always been impressed with my golf score, until I add that we only played 9 holes, not 18. But spending a lot of time in the woods and along the edges of lakes is what an ecologist enjoys, so I don't complain. Also, I like to ride in the little carts.

But even real golfers enjoy nature on the golf course. I often hear people talk about a round of golf without mentioning a single score. Instead the main event was the fox that ran across the 7th fairway or the pileated woodpecker in the pine tree by the 15th tee or the alligators that were spotted swimming in the lakes. My son spoke of three deer running from the woods alongside the course. A wayward golf shot probably drove them out. Golfers should appreciate natural habitats and the associated wildlife that can coexist on a golf course--and many do. Golf courses represent land and water that can serve the nation's wildlife.

Why are people so infatuated with golf courses? One reason is that people enjoy the manicured look denoting the taming of nature, the human control of their environment. Maybe people enjoy parks and golf courses because of an innate feeling of being safe from whatever might lurk in the untamed forest. But a shift in attitude has already arrived for many. People realize that the loss of the wild will leave a void in our lives, an ecovoid.

What can golf courses do to improve their environmental friendliness, not only for nature lovers who play golf but for those who oppose developing the landscape with golf courses? Some simple changes on golf courses could increase or maintain the biodiversity of natural habitats in a region. These changes would have a cost, in higher golf scores or landscape modifications, but making golf courses self sustaining and more environmentally stable would be a substantial benefit.

The borders of lakes, aka water hazards, could be surrounded with native emergent vegetation. Cattails, arrow weed, and golden club are magnificent natural vegetation. Having nice trim margins so you can find your ball at the edge is a cleancut approach but not a natural one. Red wing blackbirds will nest in cattails. Green tree frogs will hide in them. Lakes with sterile margins have fewer birds and frogs to create songs, both night and day. Another benefit might be a decreased need for maintenance at the lake's edge.

Another approach in the South is to plant cypress or other wetland trees along the edges. Bird voiced tree frogs might take up residence, along with a variety of birds. Getting a golf ball across the lake might be more difficult, but for someone like me, for whom every shot is difficult, who cares? Besides, the cypress could take a century to get big enough to pose a problem. We should be used to them by then.

The rough, meanwhile, has great potential for enhancing biodiversity. A simple ecological formula is that the more diverse the natural vegetation, the more diverse the native fauna. Planting a greater array of native shrubs and trees might well result in a few more lost balls, but those of us who spend a lot of time out there are used to it. And don't remove dead trees. They are not unsightly if you take the attitude that numerous kinds of attractive insects, flying squirrels, and woodpeckers thrive because of them. Dead trees are part of a natural forest, and the rough deserves to be as natural as we can keep it.

Of all forms of developed landscape, golf courses have one of the greatest opportunities for using native flora and fauna, without detracting from the blooming ornamentals. Because each course has its own array of environmental circumstances, making sweeping statements about what should be done to improve that environment is difficult. But on almost every course that array could be managed better, including reducing excessive use of water, pesticides, and herbicides. Golf courses offer opportunities to enhance the biodiversity of a region, a stroke that would make almost any golfer happier.



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