My View

Is golf environmentally beneficial or simply greenwashing?

Alex Glasgow of NZSTI shares his views on golf’s environmental reputation.

By Alex Glasgow

Tree planting completely dominated by conifers (pines and cedars in this case) provide no food source for nectar-eating birds and insects. Gradual replacement with suitable flowering trees will provide a food source, with obvious benefits.  

If excessive amounts of nutrients, pesticides, water and fuel are used, it’s unlikely that beautifying projects will offset the impact on the environment.

The golf course industry shouldn’t kid itself into thinking that it is especially virtuous from an environmental point of view. Far from it, in many cases. The excesses of course conditioning worldwide are actually examples of rampant consumerism. A truly “green” approach would be to reduce a golf course’s environmental impact by striving to minimise resources used in course maintenance.

Any land use (such as a golf course, sportsfield or agricultural pasture) will have some negative impact on the environment. When applying insecticide, for example, it is impossible to avoid killing non-targeted, harmless or beneficial insects. And under New Zealand’s Resource Management Act (RMA), fertiliser use is defined as “the application of a contaminant to land”. When it’s put like that, we are fortunate to be able to do it at all. The bottom line is that all such actions, in some small way, do some harm.

 

Waterway

A natural watercourse in desperate need of continuous marginal plantings to protect it from erosion and runoff.

 

 

Returning all land to native vegetation would deliver the ultimate benefit to the environment, but few golf clubs are going to make that sacrifice. So in seeking some balance, clubs can start by recognising that turf management practices are inherently damaging and need to be minimised. If player expectations have become excessive, this strategy may require them to make some adjustments.

 

Two Aspects to Consider

Golf clubs wanting to be truly environmentally focused need to review their turf management practices, as well as the general environment: 

 

  1. Turf Management Activities
    These include all operations involved in providing a playable golf course - like mowing, fertilization, irrigation and pesticide applications.

    How the golf course is designed and constructed will have a significant impact on these inputs. A longer-term view would include construction methods for any future course alterations and design improvements that would help minimise resource use. For example, some courses have much bigger greens than necessary (as much as 50%).

  1. The General Environment
    Golf courses provide some benefits to the environment, for example:
  • their trees sequester carbon (as does the turf itself) and can provide a food source for birds and insects
  • they provide habitats for wildlife
  • Many are protecting, restoring or creating waterways/wetlands.

A truly, environmentally focused club will respect both these components, however there is a natural tendency to ignore turf management as it is mundane and changes aren’t really visible. Instead, clubs concentrate on environmental projects, which are considered “sexy”. This is “greenwashing”. It suggests the course is environmentally friendly while it’s ignoring the activities which have by far the greatest impact (or to use a currently popular phrase, it ignores the elephant in the room).

Taking Action on Turf Management

A thorough analysis of current conditions and practices should be the foundation of any environmental management programme. Based on those findings, a documented and measureable plan for minimising resource use can be developed. This process would include:

   1. Current Inputs - How much nutrient, water, fuel and pesticide is used to maintain the golf course? This review will probably identify areas where there is potential for reduction

   2. Course Analysis - Consider relevant aspects of course design and set up, turf composition, climate, soil type, soil fertility levels, and significant weed and pest problems. For example:

  • which grasses are used and where
  • the size of highly maintained areas, such as greens, tees and fairways
  • the extent of the maintained area and how much area is essentially “out of play”
  • the soil type(s), fertility levels and climate.
Unmown rough
Un-mown roughs like these at Arrowtown Golf Club are spectacular and environmentally beneficial. However, they will not be feasible at many golf courses due to a lack of room, or because high rainfall and high soil fertility combine to produce impenetrable rough.

Playing Standards

The plan should generally aim to maintain the existing (and hence, expected) playing conditions. This, however, needs to be within reason as some expectations are excessive and could be re-evaluated.

Clubs need to identify sensible playing conditions, with upper limits, and have a policy of not ratcheting above that. This is important, as there’s a tendency for playing standards to gradually creep up. Green speed provides a good example. Not so long ago, 8 feet was perfectly acceptable; now, many clubs target a minimum of 11 feet. Such an increase requires much more turf management resource use.

Increasing maintenance standards have been largely driven by Course Superintendents being very human, i.e. striving to improve. But new standards quickly become normal expectations. Clubs then think, “This is what our members demand” when, in fact, the vast majority never actually demanded anything.

The endless pursuit of “improved” playing conditions is counter to a truly environmental approach which would always strive to minimise resource use.
The Environmentally Focused Plan

The outcome of this process will be a detailed, strategic plan for minimising the resources used on the golf course; it will include measurable goals in short, medium and long-term time frames. Short-term objectives would include manageable targets for nutrient, water and pesticide use reduction in the next 12 months. Long-term objectives would involve structural changes delivering further reduction in resource use. Possible examples are changing grass species, reducing green, tee or fairway areas, decreasing maintained areas, reducing soil fertility and so on. Like all strategic plans, it needs to be reviewed (and adjusted if necessary) at defined intervals.

Fescue fairways
New Plymouth Golf Club is gradually converting from Poa annua/rye grass fairways to fine fescue. The fescue provides better quality fairway surfaces year round, requiring significantly lower maintenance inputs.

Reaping the Rewards 

A good illustration of successful, long-term goal implementation are golf courses which have changed to grasses requiring less maintenance input, in key areas such as greens, tees and fairways. For example, there are a number of golf courses that have gradually converted putting greens from Poa annua to browntop dominance. This may have involved some “pain” in the form of slightly disrupted putting surfaces at times, but focus on the long-term goal has produced spectacular results. Once browntop dominance is achieved, the greens can be maintained using less than half the inputs required to maintain Poa annua. That has to be hugely beneficial to the environment; in addition, there are financial advantages and improvements in playing quality with much better drainage and firmness during wet periods. A win, win, win situation! Communication with golfers during the process is important. Understanding the long-term, environmental benefits will really captivate some people.

Benefits to the Environment

Very few golf clubs have the opportunity to implement environmental projects on the scale of those at Kauri Cliffs, Cape Kidnappers and Wairakei.  Each of these courses is situated within a much larger site and has significant financial resources available.

Most golf courses are on marginally sized sites; there is only just room for 18 holes and associated facilities. With modern golfing equipment, there is continual pressure to expand and lengthen layouts. Realistically, there isn’t much spare room for environmental initiatives like wetlands, extensive unmaintained roughs, habitat provision, restoration of native plant communities and so on. In addition, money for such initiatives is likely to be hard to find.

So clubs need to be realistic about the magnitude of what can be achieved. Establishing large tracts of un-mown rough on a small golf course may be tremendously beneficial to biodiversity but it will drive players away in their droves – clearly not good for business.

But inevitably there will be opportunities for suitable projects, such as:

  • gradual replacement of all conifers (pine trees, etc) with flowering trees that provide a food source for birds and nectar-eating insects such as bees (thus attracting more birdlife to the golf course)
  • gradual replacement of exotic trees with native species
  • increased biodiversity in the rough by not spraying weeds
  • correct planting of waterway margins to protect water quality
  • establishment of small pockets of un-mown grassland or other suitable vegetation in genuinely out-of-play areas
  • awareness and protection of notable native plant species (a good example would be the NZ native grass, Microlaena)
  • prevention of the spread of invasive weed species (such as gorse or wilding pines) into unmaintained areas.

Being Genuinely Environment Focused

All golf clubs are different and, aside from legislative requirements, they are free to determine their own approach to environmental management.

Clubs can rightfully claim a genuine ecofriendly focus if they do everything possible to reduce turf management inputs (consistent with sensible playing standards) as well as implement initiatives that enhance the environment. 

Those that ignore turf management issues whilst implementing modest environmental projects are guilty of “greenwashing”. As for those that do neither – well at least they are not trying to kid themselves or others.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.