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Posted: March 01, 2010

2010 golf planner’s guide: Greening of the greens

Golf courses are adopting eco-friendly pracitices to spruce up their image

Gary Baines

GolfGuide_SaddleRock11.jpg
Mary Ann Bonnell doesn't play golf, though you'd never know it by the amount of time she spends on courses. And it wasn't long ago that she viewed golf courses as the enemy.

"I grew up in a household where courses were considered an abomination of nature," Bonnell said.

That was before Bonnell was hired as senior natural resources specialist for the city of Aurora 4½ years ago, and Saddle Rock Golf Course superintendent Joe McCleary invited her out for a visit. After observing the plant life, wildlife and considerable native area set aside at the course, Bonnell underwent a conversion of sorts.

"I was blown away; I couldn't believe I was on a golf course," she said. "I came into this as a doubting Thomas, but the day I went birding at Saddle Rock was the day I had a sea change. I liked to think I knew a lot of the cool nature places, but I had to be told about golf courses."

Certainly not all of the roughly 250 courses in Colorado are as eco-friendly as Saddle Rock, but the trend is certainly going in that direction. For reasons that range from sheer cost savings to presenting a better image of the sport, to out-and-out environmentalism, the state's courses are going more "green" than ever before.

And Colorado seems to be ahead of the curve nationally. One widely respected program that certifies courses that meet high environmental standards is run by Audubon International. And only three states in the country - Florida, California and Illinois - have more certified courses than Colorado's 35.

"Colorado is absolutely" at the forefront of the movement, said Joellen Lampman, program manager of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. "And as far as percentage of courses certified, it's second only to Delaware, with 14 percent certified. And the list is growing because it's not only good for the environment, but it's a good business decision."

Eco-friendly practices can take many forms. More efficient use of water - and protecting water quality - is certainly high on the list, as is being much more careful with the use of pesticides and herbicides. Other practices seen as crucial are wildlife and habitat management, energy conservation, waste/emission control, environmental compatibility during the construction process, and using the latest and best research and technology in the area of plant management.

It was less than 20 years ago that syndicated radio personality Paul Harvey asserted that pesticide use on golf courses "might be killing people." Whatever Harvey based his opinion on, it had an effect on the way many current greenskeepers approach their jobs. Not only are most superintendents more careful with their use of such chemicals nowadays, but more take it on themselves to point out that they're better stewards of the environment than many casual observers might think.

"People realize that they have to take care of the planet, or else," said Bill Whelihan, superintendent at Haymaker Golf Course in Steamboat Springs, a course certified by Audubon International. "And superintendents drink the water, too.

"Thanks to Paul Harvey back in the day, they've had to change their ways to combat a bad public image. He said courses were using pesticides like wild men. He was pretty much out of control."
Whether it was Harvey's commentaries or just more focus on the environment in general these days, many people who run golf courses are putting a much higher priority on eco efforts than they did decades ago.

"All of us associated with the game must realize that our commitment to environmental sustainability is crucial to the future of the game," World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman said in a foreword to a Golf Course Environmental Profile report. "Few other industries have committed to evaluating the operation of their properties in the way golf is going through this process."

One of the Colorado courses at the leading edge in one area of the movement was Applewood Golf Club in Golden. With the course sitting on Coors property, the brewery didn't want to take any chances in possibly contaminating an aquifer underneath the land. So more than 20 years ago it was decided that the course would be run chemical-free. Now, course superintendent Matt Rusch and his team use all custom-blended fertilizers. They cost more - sometimes 70 percent to 80 percent more - and Applewood's practices are more labor-intensive, but the course has drawn plenty of attention.

"It's come to the point that Audubon sends people to me to see what I do" regarding fertilizer use and general care, Rusch said. "The last two years, my phone has been ringing off the hook with people wanting to see the situation."

But Rusch emphasizes that going chemical-free - especially cold turkey - isn't right for every course.

"I monitor it real closely," he said. "But the (dry) climate and the altitude here definitely help with disease (and pest) control."

McCleary, the superintendent at Saddle Rock since 1995 (two years before the course opened), has taken a leading role in eco-friendly practices in Colorado. He was recently given the inaugural Distinguished Service Award by the Rocky Mountain Golf Course Superintendents Association. Saddle Rock, meanwhile, received the Blue Grama Award - named after Colorado's state grass - from the Colorado Open Space Alliance in recognition of environmental education efforts regarding the native prairie areas at the course.

"From my experience, pockets (of environmentalism) often form around charismatic leaders, and in Colorado, Joe McCleary is a charismatic leader," Audubon's Lampman said.
At Saddle Rock, Bonnell teaches college-level botany classes on-site, and McCleary conducts environmental education tours. The course welcomes the public to use a large single-stream recycling bin on the grounds, and it also served as a Christmas tree recycling spot.

Being environmental-minded "has always been something that's a passion of mine," McCleary said. "I try to address environmental issues as much as possible. And I've tried to make the course a community asset. With the (public-use) single-stream recycling dumpster in the maintenance facility, the staff thought I was nuts, but a ton and a half a week is recycled out of this facility. People come in and say how much they like it."

As far as the course itself goes, only 105 acres of the 240-acre site is maintained turf. Much of the rest is native area, with an abundance of wildlife and plant life - the kind that's so compelling for Bonnell and her botany students.

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"It's important to take as many opportunities as possible to make people aware of what's going on" with these environmental practices, McCleary said. "If we don't talk about it, people don't know about it.

"We show the course as a community asset. We bring people out and show them the biodiversity of the property. We've opened up the door and made people realize the value of open (native) grass areas on the course."

On a larger front, McCleary is helping spearhead a new initiative that will quantify the carbon emissions of golf facilities in the state, then publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal. The Colorado Golf Carbon Project, one of the first studies of its kind, also aims to create marketable carbon offsets that would help finance conservation and eco-friendly initiatives related to golf.
"No matter what view you have about global warming, it makes sense to look at what resources we're using," McCleary said. "We'd like to show that a carbon footprint of a course is maybe not neutral, but it's not what people might think."

The major golf associations in Colorado previously commissioned a 2002 study - like this one, in conjunction with Colorado State University - that examined water usage by golf courses in the state. It showed that courses, even in a drought year, accounted for just one three-hundredth of the state's overall water consumption. Other studies have shown that Colorado courses on average use about 22 percent less water per irrigated acre than comparable facilities in the upper west/mountain region of the country.

Eco-friendly practices are by no means limited to public courses in Colorado. Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, a high-end resort facility that includes three courses, has likewise made "going green" a priority.

The Broadmoor has saved on water usage by converting a significant amount of groomed, highly maintained turf into native grasses that require minimal maintenance. The Mountain Course was redesigned several years ago, and now native grass covers roughly half the course's acreage.

"It serves a lot of purposes," director of golf course maintenance Fred Dickman said. "You don't need fertilizers and pesticides on those areas, you don't have to mow and you use less water. It also enhances the wildlife habitat."

Technology also has helped considerably at the Broadmoor, which uses localized moisture/temperature sensors, combined with two on-site weather stations, to eliminate the guesswork on water usage.

But there's more to all this than sheer efficiency.

"A lot of this begins with the superintendent," Dickman said. "The job is outside, kind of a natural thing, and is associated with wildlife. I think a lot of us are naturalists at heart."
In some cases, the efforts to establish an eco-friendly course begin even in the planning stages of the facility. That's where Audubon International's Signature Sanctuary Programs come into play. Courses that want to be certified in the Signature Programs must involve Audubon International from the get-go. There are two Bronze Signature Sanctuary courses in Colorado: Haymaker in Steamboat Springs and The Heritage at Westmoor in Westminster.

Lance Johnson, superintendent at The Heritage at Westmoor and nearby Legacy Ridge, estimates there were about $100,000 to $125,000 in additional upfront costs associated with environmental efforts at The Heritage, "but in the end you're only helping yourself and the perception of the course.

"We're not ruining the environment; we're doing something to improve it," Johnson said.

And over the long haul there are money savings associated with improved efficiency and having less turf to maintain.

The one new 18-hole course to open in Colorado in 2009, CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora, was constructed on the site of the old Mira Vista/Lowry facility, so there were some unique challenges. The old cart paths on the site were ground up and recycled for the new paths, and irrigation heads and underground wire were also recycled.

The old course used to utilize potable water, but the new facility is equipped to pump the effluent variety, which is treated wastewater. Many trees that didn't fit in with the new course's layout were transplanted, and others replaced. The Colorado Golf Association and Colorado Women's Golf Association, which own and operate the course, also are cultivating the natural habitat in and around the holes.

"It's open space in the midst of an urban corridor," said Tracy Richard, CommonGround's director of agronomy. "We realize, especially in urban corridors, that course may be the only open space in certain areas. If we increase the habitat, it makes us feel good about what we're doing."

A SAMPLING OF ECO-FRIENDLY PRACTICES USED BY GOLF COURSES IN COLORADO

Applewood Golf Club, Golden
For the last 22 years, the facility has been run chemical-free - one of the few courses in the nation that can make that claim - because the Coors brewery didn't want to take any chances of contaminating the aquifer underneath the course. The fertilizers now used by Applewood are custom-blended. The course has 60 birdhouses on it, and among the birds that live there year-around are bald eagles, hawks and owls. Ponds are kept algae-free. The course is certified by Audubon International.

Broadmoor Golf Club  (three courses), Colorado Springs
All three Broadmoor courses are certified by Audubon International, with the Mountain Course being added in late 2009. In recent years, roughly 50 acres on the East and West Courses combined have been converted from highly maintained turf to native grasses, which require far less maintenance and water and enhance wildlife habitat. The Mountain Course was redesigned several years ago, and now roughly half of the acreage consists of native areas. The Broadmoor uses localized moisture/temperature sensors, in conjunction with two on-site weather stations, to make the most efficient use of water. It also periodically conducts complete audits of the irrigation system.

CommonGround Golf Course, Aurora
As the only new 18-hole course to open in Colorado in 2009, CommonGround is seeking Aububon International certification. Material from the previous course's cart paths was ground up and reused, and old sprinkler heads and underground wire were recycled. Many trees were planted and others were transplanted, and the wildlife habitat has been expanded. The new course uses recycled rather than potable water. Plans are in the works to do a public-outreach program with schools in which youngsters would be brought to the course and taught about the local ecosystem and conservation efforts.

Haymaker Golf Course, Steamboat Springs
Certified a Bronze Signature Sanctuary course by Audubon International, which OK'd the environmental plans during and after construction of the course. The decision to go with the Audubon program from Day 1 was primarily politically motivated at first, as a city-owned course had to go to a vote of residents, and an AI affiliation demonstrated commitment to the environment. In 2009, Haymaker received honorable-mention status when Golf Inc. Green Awards were passed out. More than half of Haymaker's acreage is covered by natural pastureland. The course is very selective with pesticide use, targeting specific areas rather than a wholesale approach. Water is tested regularly to make sure it's as clean, or cleaner, leaving the property as it was coming in.

The Heritage at Westmoor, Westminster
Both courses under superintendent Lance Johnson's purview have won significant eco-friendly awards. In 1994 when it first opened, Legacy Ridge claimed the national Environmental Steward Award given by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and The Heritage is one of two Colorado courses designated with Bronze Signature Sanctuary status, which means Audubon International gave the facility a stamp of approval during and after construction. Almost 60 percent of The Heritage's acreage is native area. The course has been using more composting and less synthetic fertilizer in recent years.

Saddle Rock Golf Course, Aurora
The course is certified by Audubon International and recently received an award from the Colorado Open Space Alliance for its environmental education efforts. Mary Ann Bonnell, senior natural resources specialist for the city of Aurora, teaches a college-level botany class there, and superintendent Joe McCleary leads tours with the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rock Garden Society. Less than 45 percent of Saddle Rock's total acreage is highly maintained turf. Saddle Rock welcomes the public to use a large single-stream recycling dumpster on-site, and also does Christmas tree recycling at the course.

Colorado golf courses certified by Audubon International:

Applewood GC
Aspen Glen Club
Aspen GC
Beaver Creek GC
Breckenridge GC
Broadmoor GC (East, West and Mountain courses)
Castle Pines GC
Centre Hills GC
Colorado Springs CC
Eagle Ranch GC
Fox Hollow GC
Green Valley Ranch GC
Homestead GC
Haymaker GC (Bronze Signature
Sanctuary)
The Heritage at Westmoor
(Bronze Signature Sanctuary)
Lakewood CC
Keystone Ranch GC
Maroon Creek Club
Meadow Hills GC
Murphy Creek GC
Red Sky GC (Fazio and Norman courses)
The River Course at Keystone
Roaring Fork Club
Saddle Rock GC
Snowmass Club
Sonnenalp GC
Springhill GC
Telluride GC
Tiara Rado GC
Vail GC
Valley CC
West Woods GC

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Gary Baines is a Colorado-based freelancer who writes frequently about golf.

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