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.

Golf has its roots in seaside Scotland, where courses were -- and still are -- laid out along the natural contours of the land, with little modification. But as the sport grew in popularity and engineering improved, courses have been hacked out of almost any environment -- from mountainsides to deserts to swamps.

The USGA would have you believe that golf courses are God's little acres. Log on to the organization's Website and behold the splendid product of its well-oiled PR machinery: Under a special "Green Section" heading, visitors are invited to explore several environment-related pages such as "What Happens to Pesticides Applied to Golf Courses?" and "Key Environmental Messages." One page is illustrated with a photograph of a pair of deer nibbling near a greenside bunker. "Do Golf Courses Pollute the Environment?" another page asks. (Answer: "No, they do not.")

Golf industrialists have good reason to make sure they're wearing a little bit of prominently displayed green: about $20 billion worth. By the estimates of the National Golf Foundation, 25 million people play 490 million rounds of golf each year on the nation's 15,390 courses. And during the first half of this decade, developers were building an average of 255 new golf courses per year.

To the industry's credit, the past few years have seen what appears to be a genuine attempt to make courses and management practices more environmentally friendly. The American Society of Golf Course Architects brags about recent efforts to build new golf courses on ravaged land such as abandoned mines and landfills, and it touts the eco-friendliness of its members in a glossy booklet entitled "An Environmental Approach to Golf Course Development." The Golf Course Superintendents Association, too, asserts that its members are ahead of the environmental curve and its scientists are studying new methods of maintaining courses with fewer chemicals and less water.

In a watershed event, golfers and environmentalists gathered at two Golf & the Environment symposia (one in 1995 and the second in 1996) to discuss their lack of rapport. "We thought there was a real need for this in the golf community," explains Roger Schiffman, executive editor of Golf Digest magazine, which convened the weekend conferences along with the National Wildlife Federation and the Center for Resource Management, a nonprofit conflict-resolution firm based in Salt Lake City. "The environmentalists and the golf community were at real odds with each other. Environmentalists were holding up golf courses, suing local builders and local operators. The golf course builders and architects became quite anti-environmental. They saw environmentalists holding up the future of golf."

The summits produced a slender booklet titled "Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States," which establishes voluntary guidelines for the siting, construction, and maintenance of courses. It was endorsed by twenty environmental, golf, and governmental organizations.

These days it's difficult to find someone in the golfing industry who won't declare himself a nature lover. "Superintendents have been environmentalists before it was chic to be one," proclaims Dale Kuehner, director of golf maintenance at Colony West Country Club in Tamarac and president of the Florida chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association. "I'm out here twelve to thirteen hours a day, being outdoors and in the environment."

Adds Earl Grey, agronomy consultant for the Golf Club of Miami and a former manager of Indian Creek Country Club: "I'm a real environmentalist! I'm the type of guy who goes to Colorado and names all the hardwoods. My son is going to be an environmental engineer; my daughter's a member of Greenpeace. She doesn't eat veal! Is that good enough?"

Some environmental activists regard this sort of chatter as pretense. Mark Massara is an environmental attorney in San Francisco, director of the Sierra Club Coastal Program and an anti-golf diehard. He was the Sierra Club's representative at the Golf & the Environment summits and was the only participant whose organization refused to endorse the principles. "At least 50 people from the Sierra Club commented on these proposed principles, and it was near unanimous that they weren't strong enough," says Massara. "It was a good first step, but we were looking for something that would result in some kind of action, not confuse decisionmakers by having real estate developers stand up and say, 'I've designed a golf course that follows these principles and was therefore endorsed by the Sierra Club!' That was a real concern."

Indeed, the principles, while well-meaning, are legally toothless. ("Respect designated environmentally sensitive areas within the course," for example, and "Support maintenance practices that protect wildlife and natural habitat.") The Sierra Club, Massara says, is looking for long-term commitment, not short-term lip service.

Anti-golf activists are most concerned about the relentless construction of new courses. "It's runaway real estate speculation," proclaims Massara, who makes this radical demand: Impose a moratorium on new course construction and close courses in wetlands, along the coast, and near other sensitive ecosystems. Short of a moratorium, he says, new courses should be confined to previously degraded environments, such as landfills, quarries, and mines. Meanwhile, existing golf courses should go "cold turkey" on chemical use, drastically reduce water consumption, and allow the land to return to a more natural state. These measures would restore a long-lost modicum of wilderness to the game, the attorney argues. "What began with rugged outdoor types chasing a white ball across native terrain called 'links' has metamorphosed into something resembling a line of minivans at a drive-through fast-foot joint," he scoffs.

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