Golf courses

The Audubon Golf Course: The Future of Golf

Greg Matthews
Written by Greg Matthews

As is true of a great many other businesses, the historical environmental track record of golf has been less than ideal. In fact, it has been widely criticized for its negative environmental impact. However, that is in the process of changing. An environmental program for golf courses from Audubon International is working to genuinely remedy the problem and improve their reputation by improving their actual environmental track record.

Historical Context

The exact origins of the game of golf are lost to the mists of time. However, it is widely accepted that the game as it is played today developed in Scotland at some point during the Middle Ages.

One outgrowth of this history is that golf courses generally strive to replicate the lush greenery peculiar to this part of the world. Many places have climates that are ill suited to readily achieving the lush, green look that comes naturally to the Scottish lowlands. As the game was exported around the world to various climates, it has mostly failed to adapt its new homes. The inevitable outcome is its bad reputation on the environmental front.

Environmental Context

Golf courses use a great deal of both water and chemicals to maintain their large expanses of green lawn in top shape. They are nearly a mono-culture of grass, undermining local and sometimes regional biodiversity. In some climates, especially arid climates with too little rainfall, the high water usage of golf courses is particularly burdensome on the local water supply. The chemical runoff contributes to eutrophication of local bodies of water. This means the chemicals promote overgrowth of algae and other undesirable species, leading to reduced oxygenation of the water and ultimately killing off other species. This can lead to the waterway becoming essentially a dead zone.

Because golf courses are generally large expanses of land, the local impact can be significant. The fact that golf courses are basically a rich person’s hobby has helped spread them far and wide, greatly increasing the amount of land devoted to this sport. This means golf courses are here to stay. They are not likely to suddenly go away. Thus, the only real solution to the environmental problems caused by them is to develop eco-friendly practices and make sustainable golf courses a reality.

Facts about traditional golf courses

Traditionally, golf courses have been highly manicured. This reality results in the following facts:

  • In the US alone, golf courses use approximately 414,500,000 liters of water per year.
  • It is estimated that there are more than 35,000 golf courses around the world.
  • Although they are attractive for their employment and income benefits, they cause a loss of biodiversity.
  • They cause eutrophication of local waterways due to fertilizer runoff.
  • Golf courses are a heavy user of irrigation water, a significant burden on the local water supply, especially in arid regions.
  • In addition to fertilizer, they use a great deal of pesticides, weed killer and other biocides. This contaminates both the water and air.
  • They are often erroneously described as local “open space.” Many people do not question this idea, but open space refers to natural habitat that supports local wildlife. Traditional golf courses do not actually do that.
  • One of the side effects of locals viewing them as “open space” is that they get a false idea of what natural beauty really looks like. Manicured lawns have little in common with actual natural beauty.

A new age: Sustainable golf courses

In developed countries, like the U.S., there is no land left that doesn’t legally belong to somebody. There are nature preserves owned and run by the government, but no land is really, truly wild anymore. That era has passed.

In recent decades, the global population became more urban than rural. For the first time in human history, more than half of the human population lives in cities. More recently, the world passed the 7 billion mark for the global population.

These facts help fuel a global crisis where many species are endangered. It is increasingly critical that we use as much land as possible in an eco-friendly manner. If we do not want to see a massive decline in overall biodiversity and quality of life, we have to use every opportunity to create genuinely natural areas as oases for wildlife to survive in an increasingly urbanized, paved over landscape.

This makes the sustainable, eco-friendly Audubon golf course a sight for sore eyes in the sustainable development movement. In the process of pursuing Audubon golf course certification, a golf course converts an average of 22 of 120 acres of turf grass back to natural habitat. When you multiply that by the tens of thousands of golf courses around the world, this represents a huge boon to our efforts to preserve space in the world for wildlife and natural ecosystems.

Who is Audubon International?

Audubon International is a not-for-profit organization involved in sustainability work. They promote sustainable communities and environments. Their stated mission is “to deliver high-quality environmental education and facilitate the sustainable management of land, water, wildlife, and other natural resources in all places people live, work, and play.”

They run six different programs, all supporting their mission. The programs are as follows:

  1. Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP): An education and certification program aimed at helping parks, schools and various businesses improve our environment and their bottom line.
  2. ACSP for Golf: An education and certification program for golf courses.
  3. Green Lodging Program: Provides third party verification for the environmental track record of motels, hotels, inns, resorts, timeshares, and bed & breakfasts.
  4. Signature & Classic Programs: Provides environmental planning assistance to new developments in certain categories, including golf courses.
  5. Sustainable Communities Program: A resource for promoting sustainable communities at the city or similar community planning level.
  6. Green Neighborhoods Program: A resource for promoting sustainability at the neighborhood level.

What is the Audubon Golf Course Certification program?

According to their own literature, the objectives of the certification program are as follows:

  1. Enhance wildlife habitats on existing golf courses by working with golf course superintendents and providing advice for ecologically sound course management.
  2. Encourage active participation in conservation programs by golfers, golf course superintendents, golf officials, and the general public.
  3. Recognize the people who are actively participating in environmentally responsible projects.
  4. Educate the public and golfing community about the benefits of golf courses and the role they play relative to the environment and wildlife.

Additionally, they are interested in promoting environmental planning, improving wildlife and habitat management, reducing the use of chemicals, improving water conservation, and improving water quality management. The program also promotes community outreach and education.

Although the certification process can take up to three years, it provides a number of quantifiable advantages or benefits to the golf course that completes the process. In addition to improving their environmental performance, they also see better community relations, financial savings, and a reduction in liability. They can be proud of the way and the degree to which they contribute to the conservation of environmental resources, but they can also bank on measurable improvements to their bottom line.

It may seem counter-intuitive that doing what is good for the environment can also improve a company’s financial performance. Surprisingly, this is frequently true. It is especially likely to be true for companies whose stock in trade intersects with the growing, living plants and animals or the natural environment in general.

When golf courses return a fifth or more of their land to natural habitat, it reduces their maintenance costs. They no longer have to pay someone to mow the lawn in that area. They no longer have to water that area. They no longer have to fertilize that area. They largely leave it alone to do as it will. This means they are no longer spending money to artificially maintain an artificial landscape constantly trying to go back to a natural environment. They can give up the battle and let nature win. In the process, they can keep more money in their pocket.

There have been many quantifiable positive environmental impacts. In particular, a 2011 survey found that:

  • 52% of participants reduced water usage
  • 66% of participants reduced fertilizer usage
  • 70% of participants reduced pesticide usage
  • 44% of participants reduced fuel usage
  • 51% of participants reduced the amount of wastes they produced
  • 69% of participants improved irrigation systems
  • 89% of participants increased shoreline mowing heights to slow and filter runoff
  • 96% of participants are using lower toxicity pesticides
  • 59% of participants have natural vegetation around all shore lines
  • The average participant reduced the number of acres to which they apply pesticides by 15 acres.

Comparison with other sustainable certification programs

Surprisingly, there are only a few hundred sustainable certification programs in the world. Many of them are in the food industry. They often focus on sustainable production of food and social justice for employees or businesses in developing nations that trade with developed nations, such as the coffee industry. One of the best known and earliest such programs is the Fairtrade standards developed in the 1980s by a Dutch development agency working with Mexican farmers.

The ACSP for Golf program is unusual in its focus on land use by a particular business and the express interest in protecting wildlife and fostering natural corridors for them to thrive in. It is a very visionary approach to the issue of sustainability.

Results so far

This is an award winning program. Although the majority of participants are in the U.S., there are also a significant number of international participants. Here is a round up of figures:

  • There are at least 237 golf courses enrolled in the Audubon Signature Program.
  • The most recently available figures showed 2205 golf courses enrolled in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.
  • This represents more than a half million acres of land enrolled in the ACSP for golf courses.
  • As a result of their participation in the ACSP, there are now more than 500 conservation organizations directly involved with golf courses.
  • In 2008, 72 golf courses participated in North American Birdwatching Open. The average number of bird species sighted at each course was 46.
  • There are 80 Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Golf Courses.
  • There are 1780 golf courses certified in Environmental Planning.
  • In 2007-2008, there were more than 2000 individuals, including golf course personnel, educated by Audubon International through seminars, conference presentations, and site visits.

Sustainable golf courses are the future of golf

In the past, golf has had a rather poor reputation with regards to its environmental track record, and deservedly so. The Audubon golf program promises to change that. It promises to not simply remedy the negative reputation the industry has, but to create a positive environmental record that will get golf perceived in a whole new light.

It will accomplish that not by some kind of spin doctoring or PR stunt. It will do it by actually making golf courses more environmentally sound businesses. The world is currently at a critical juncture. Two paths lie before us. One path promises that we keep harming the environment until it will not longer support more than 7 billion people. The other path is one where we learn how to take care of the environment so that it can continue to take care of us.

The only sane choice is the second one. Golf courses are businesses that are uniquely situated to help support wildlife by creating wildlife corridors as part of their appeal. No other for-profit, suburban business has the same kind of potential to fill this important role.

About the author

Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews

Greg is a graduate of the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara. An avid golfer, Greg has written many essays on sustainable golf courses and environmental stewardship programs.

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