The Forest Greens Golf Course proclaims on its website: “A Virginia Department of Conservation Environmentally Friendly Golf Facility.”
This kind of notice is becoming more common for golf courses in the Bay region as managers for one of the United State’s favorite sports see the benefits of reducing applications of fertilizers and pesticides, using less water, and naturalizing fairway borders with native plants.
The Forest Greens course, a 351-acre public facility in Prince William County, follows nutrient management guidelines developed by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. The fact that the fairways are less glowing than the emerald green carpets seen on the Masters Tour hasn’t discouraged golfers. “It works for us,” said Forest Greens superintendent Jeff Van Fleet, whose course clocks about 50,000 rounds annually.
Golfing websites show that there are more than 350 courses in Maryland and Virginia that are located on lands that drain into the Bay. Environmental critics generally view courses as artificial habitats for wildlife at best, but mainly see them as chemical-laden landscapes which sometimes cause toxic side effects to waterways. In August 2001, for instance, a fairway application of a soil fumigant hours before a thunderstorm resulted in a massive fish kill outside the property of an Arlington, VA, country club.
Nonetheless, the number of courses is growing. New developments, such as retirement communities and resorts, often feature golf courses, and some are provoking controversy in part because the facilities are near sensitive watersheds. The proposed Blackwater Resort south of Cambridge, MD, on the Eastern Shore, is planned on 1,000 acres of farmland that borders the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The developer wants to build a course on a protected zone along the Little Blackwater River.
Concern about the effects of golf course development near waterways led the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to push last year for the Maryland Critical Areas Commission—which oversees sensitive lands in the Maryland portion of the Bay watershed—to adopt policies governing golf course development.
The commission in August 2005 approved requirements for a 300-foot buffer between courses and tidal waters, a 150-foot buffer on both sides of streams, a ban on clubhouses or other structures in the critical area, and the protection of wildlife habitat. The policy also calls for stormwater management that will achieve results similar to those of a completely forested site.
But advocates for the Bay say state and local governments, as well as conservation groups that have golf management initiatives, have a long way to go before golf courses are truly green. The catch, they say, is that programs for most areas are almost completely voluntary, often relying on the good faith of course superintendents.
“In the current regulatory environment, I’m skeptical that golf courses can be Bay-friendly,” said George Maurer, who until this spring was a senior planner in the Maryland office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “There’s a lack of checks in the system to make sure that golf course managers are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
Willie Woode, who works with private golf course superintendents as part of his duties at the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, agreed that it’s difficult to monitor courses’ environmental plans. “Do I know if these courses do tests before they fertilize? No.”
Increasingly, though, programs are targeting golf courses with the hope of making them more environmentally friendly.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has focused on urging golf courses to conserve water, according to DEP spokeswoman Kerry Chippo. “We’ve asked that if there is a drought emergency, they (the courses) have a plan in place,” she said, adding that the department also plans to start a nutrient management outreach initiative to courses as part of its Bay tributary strategies.
One member of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s “Business for the Bay” initiative is the Mid-Atlantic Association of Golf Course Superintendents. Mary Lynn Wilhere, coordinator of the business initiative, said it is an “on ramp” that provides information to members on environment-friendly measures. “It’s up to them to set the goals,” she said.
The environmental movement began to pay attention to golf courses in the 1980s and 1990s, and a 1995 summit conference of course managers and conservation experts resulted in the creation of a set of principles for a “sustainable future” that included sensitivity to adjoining lands.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Audubon International organization (which has no connection to the National Audubon Society) began working with the U.S. Golf Association in 1991 on a program to help the golf industry to reduce anti-environmental practices and enhance habitats for plants and wildlife.
Audubon International has certified about 15 Virginia courses in the Bay watershed. There are eight in Maryland; 10 in Pennsylvania. The organization cites a survey showing that since 2002, most certified courses have reduced both pesticide use and the toxicity of the chemicals used. Almost 90 percent of the courses report using native plants when landscaping, up from about 50 percent before joining the program.
One of the points that Audubon International stresses is the cost savings on water bills and chemicals that result from a more ecologically sophisticated management program. The mid-Atlantic region’s hot, humid weather creates some of the most challenging conditions for growing grass in the country. Golf course superintendents traditionally relied on large quantities of fertilizers and water to produce lush fairways and greens. The ever-present moisture and long growing season encourage fungal diseases and insects, which used to be regularly treated with big doses of pesticides.
Van Fleet said he was able to cut applications of nitrogen at Forest Greens by half last year after doing extensive tests that showed the presence of micro-nutrients in soil that could be used by the turf grass roots. “Everything starts with the soil,” he said. “We test three times a year.”
Healthier turf, which is also affected by the soil’s acidity/alkalinity balance, means less disease. “Fungicides and pesticides are a necessary evil, but applied correctly, you’re not going to run into problems,” Van Fleet said. One reason is many of the chemicals used for such purposes today are more specific and generally less toxic. On the Forest Green course, the planting of disease-resistant Bermuda grass on the fairways has reduced the need for chemical applications.
In October 2005, Virginia strengthened its guidance for counties that monitor the nutrient management programs of new or expanding golf courses. Existing courses can become certified as environmentally friendly by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation by using standards and criteria for the rate and timing of nutrient applications. The department says nutrient management programs are in place at about 105 courses in the state, and are reviewed by officials in Richmond every one to three years.
“Even though the plans are voluntary, this industry has been very cooperative in making changes in their programs to comply with plan recommendations,” said David Kindig, the training and certification coordinator with the Virginia conservation department.
Two courses that received Audubon International certification are the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, VA, and the Chevy Chase Club just over the Maryland state line in the District of Columbia. The Jones club eliminated the need for maintenance on the slope in front of one of its tees (and the lake that abuts the area) by allowing native grasses and wildflowers to grow.
At the private Chevy Chase Club, members began their own naturalization program more than three decades ago with the creation of a nature trail. Native wildflowers were planted in the upland areas, while a bald cypress wetland was added in 1995 as well as a birdwatching site near the seventh fairway. Dozens of bluebird boxes have been mounted around the course, while about 30 acres of woodland have been preserved. Pond water is used to irrigate the course.
Even U.S. Army golf superintendents—thanks in part to federal requirements—have begun implementing environmentally sound practices. The Fort Belvoir, VA, course, which borders the Potomac River, uses integrated pest management techniques that have cut chemical use by an average of 30 percent, the Army’s website reports. Meanwhile, at the 450-acre Fort Eustis course, on Virginia’s James River, no-mow zones around lakes and other areas have grown to more than 50 acres.