How Green Is Too Green?

Bulldozers. Pesticides. Fertilizers. If you live in South Florida, golf's threat to the ecosystem might get you teed off.

Anyone who wants an illustration of the incongruity of human settlement in Miami need only look as far as La Gorce Country Club the day after a heavy rainfall. To see the posh club's fastidiously manicured eighteen-hole golf course a couple of feet under water is to realize that despite man's best efforts to control it, nature will, in the end, have its way.

The course is carved into one of Miami Beach's ritziest neighborhoods. When the organization's members decided to redesign their links in 1994 ("To help the image of the club," explains general manager Darren Betz), they called on one of the world's greatest golfers and most prominent course designers, Jack Nicklaus, who practiced on those same fairways during his childhood. La Gorce shelled out $2.5 million for Nicklaus's efforts and got a splendid new facility -- on clear days. After a rain, though, it's another story; the course acquires a lake-belt of new water hazards and is difficult to play without a flat-bottom skiff.

"I wouldn't say it's a problem," posits Betz. "It's just a fact of life." He is being a little disingenuous: The situation is so displeasing that La Gorce has entered into legal arbitration proceedings against Nicklaus's firm, Golden Bear International, Inc., and Paragon Golf Construction, the contractors who rebuilt the course. But in his attempt to tone down the seriousness of the issue, Betz does inadvertently hit on the crux of the matter: Around here, flooding is indeed a fact of life. More to the point, most of Dade was once under water.

La Gorce is a reminder that in South Florida we live in the natural ecosystem but too often in defiance of it. Here the groundwater, our sole source of drinking water, is literally inches beneath our feet, and anything we pour or spill on the ground may well wind up there. The housing developments on our western flank are back-yard-to-hammock with the Everglades; to the east our condos cast afternoon shadows on the Atlantic. We're here only by elaborate contrivances -- drainage canals, levees, air-conditioning, and sunblock.

Golf courses are no exception. Because they are green, they seem innocuous, but their threat to the ecosystem is more insidious than, say, a housing development in Kendall, where the battle line between man and nature is so clearly delineated. Historically, golf courses have been anathema to the environment: They use a tremendous amount of water for irrigation, disturb native soil and wildlife habitats, affect natural hydrology, increase stormwater runoff, and require an array of fertilizers and pesticides that pose a risk of contamination to both surface water and groundwater.

The fact that golf is not a naturally occurring phenomenon may come as a surprise to some in South Florida, where the sport is something of a religion and where 270 courses dapple the landscape. (Dade alone boasts 44, according to the Jupiter, Florida-based National Golf Foundation, a nonprofit trade association.) Here, as much as anywhere else in the U.S., golf and nature coexist in an extremely uncomfortable marriage, with the sport having the upper -- and more destructive -- hand. A debate between environmentalists and golfers about this awkward relationship has ensnared the sport around the world. But in South Florida, bastion of duffers and a unique and vulnerable ecosystem, the factions have been curiously quiet.

Once in a while, and usually in the very early morning or late afternoon, a man emerges from a warehouse hidden in the trees behind the seventeenth hole at the Golf Club of Miami. Wearing a full-length protective jumpsuit, gloves, and a respirator strapped to his face, he plods over to a small storage closet that reeks of chemical fumes and is filled with containers and sacks labeled with names like Orthene and MSMA 6.6 and Mancur and Sencor and Daconil 2787. Carefully measuring out small amounts of the substances, he mixes them with water in a three-gallon tank, which he straps to his back and hauls onto the course.

He's going to kill stuff.
Depending on the day and circumstances, his intended victims might be insects, fungi, or weeds, an array of life forms that threaten to corrupt the lush aesthetic of the golf course. Sometimes a three-gallon tank isn't enough to subdue the enemy, in which case a 150-gallon tank on wheels, equipped with a sixteen-foot spray boom, is deployed. Other times, when nourishment is the order of the day, a small tractor is pressed into service, pulling a large funnellike apparatus that sprays chemical fertilizer 40 feet in every direction.

Such practices go on at nearly all of the world's golf courses and are generally considered a necessary part of the game. But it is precisely this mindset that enrages environmentalists, who fear that all those chemicals will leach through the grass and soil into the groundwater, or wash into nearby surface water, and wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

Course superintendents say there's no cause for alarm if the chemicals are properly applied. "It's very important you follow the label," notes Earl Grey, an agronomy consultant for the county-owned Golf Club of Miami in northwest Dade. He and his fellow superintendents always weigh a number of factors, including area of application, time of day, and weather: Is it too close to a lake? How many hours should pass before golfers can play through? Will it rain and wash away all the chemicals before they can take effect? The selection alone is daunting: According to Grey, about twenty different insecticides, twenty to twenty-five fungicides, and ten to fifteen herbicides are in common use. "This is such a science, you know?" he says. "But I only use what I have to use to control the situation," he adds quickly. "I'm not an eradicator."

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