CAN GOLF COURSES BE MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?

by Whit Gibbons

April 10, 2016

Golfers are impressed by my golf score, until they learn I played 9 holes, not 18. Like other ecologists, I enjoy spending time in the woods and along lake edges, and I usually find more balls than I lose. Also, I like to ride in the little carts.

But even real golfers enjoy nature on the golf course. I often hear friends speak of a round of golf without mentioning their scorecard. Instead they mention the fox that ran across the 7th fairway or the pileated woodpecker in the big pine tree by the 15th tee or the alligator in the lake. My son tells of three deer driven from the woods onto the fairway by my wayward tee shot. Most golfers appreciate natural habitats and the associated wildlife that can coexist on a golf course.

What makes golf courses so appealing? One aspect is the manicured look denoting the taming of nature, the human control of the environment. Parks and golf courses give us an inherent feeling of security from whatever might lurk in the untamed forest. But can golf courses improve their environmental friendliness, not only for nature lovers who play golf but also for those who oppose developing the landscape? Some simple changes could increase or maintain the biodiversity of natural habitats in a region while keeping the openness that provides a sense of well-being. These changes would have a cost, including higher golf scores for people like me, but making golf courses more environmentally stable and natural 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 neatly trimmed margins so you can find your ball at the edge is a clean-cut 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 lake edges. Bird-voiced or gray tree frogs might take up residence, along with a greater 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. Golfers 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 why remove dead trees? They are not unsightly if you take the attitude that numerous beautiful 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 present 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 could or should be done for improvement is difficult. But on almost every course the 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. I doubt if the Augusta National Golf Course will make any changes, and I know I won't be playing there, but I bet a golf course in your area could probably use a facelift.

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