Climate Changed: Canadian golf courses working to reduce ecological impact

Golf’s origins can be traced back hundreds of years to the Scottish countryside, where the natural features of the land near Edinburgh created the danger that golfers had to play around and sheep kept the grass well-manicured.

But in the centuries that followed, the sport spread around the world, and different circumstances forced the technology used to maintain golf courses to go far beyond sheep. The golf course has been divided by some environmentalists criticizing their use of pesticides and fresh water, but their defenders argue that the golf course can be an oasis that provides vital green space for cities and suburbs.

Dr Sara Stricker of the Turfgrass Institute at the University of Guelph wants to bridge the gap between golf course critics and their supporters.

“Golf courses, especially in very urbanized areas, are the last remnants of our natural areas, and I think it’s important to protect them,” Stricker said. “Supervisors are not bad people. They are people with children, families and dogs.

“They also want the environment to be as healthy as possible, and they have to protect the areas they are responsible for caring for.”

The Turfgrass Institute is committed to developing healthier, more sustainable grass seeds for fields such as golf courses and football fields. Stricker said many golf courses are at the center of innovation in sustainability, including improving their ability to capture carbon and developing new water-saving practices.

As an example, Stricker said the Turfgrass Institute is helping to develop new varieties of cultivated grasses that use less water.

“Just like McIntosh and Granny Smith are apple cultivars, you can keep the same variety (grass) or switch to a more drought tolerant variety,” Stricker said. “We worked with an organization called the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance to do some trials in Ontario with Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue, just two different turfgrass.

“So when golf courses want to use less water, they can switch to the drought-tolerant varieties we’ve tested here.”

However, pesticides are another issue.

Because the grass on tees, fairways, and greens must be mowed so tightly to be played, golf course managers have had to use pesticides and other chemical treatments to help keep the turf alive.

In Ontario, golf courses are required to submit annual usage reports to the Integrated Pest Management Board. In their report, they must explain why they applied, how many applied, and what they plan to reduce in order to maintain their IPM certification for permission to continue spraying the lawns they manage.

Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto who specializes in strategies to reduce chemical pollutants in the environment, is deeply concerned about the ecological impact of golf courses in Canada. She said the Ontario Pesticide Act of 1990, which sets out the province’s pesticide regulatory framework, was an important development, but noted that golf courses were largely exempt from the act.

“We’re in a much worse situation right now in terms of the number of pollinators,” Diamond said. “Songbird populations are dwindling dramatically, and amphibian numbers have fallen dramatically.

“There has to be a way for golfers to enjoy the outdoors and to make sure that the golfers’ grandchildren don’t just look at pictures of frogs in books, but actually know there are frogs alive.”

Diamond also noted that fertiliser use on golf courses is a problem because it has immediate adverse effects, as the water contains too many nutrients and can wreak havoc on ecosystems. In extreme conditions, over-fertilization can kill fish because it encourages the growth of algae, which in turn absorb oxygen from the water, making it impossible for fish to breathe.

Audubon International, a New York-based nonprofit environmental education organization, certifies golf courses around the world to ensure they limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Frank LaVardera, the organization’s golf environmental program director, said even the smallest changes to the course can have a huge impact on its ecological impact.

“A typical 18-hole golf course might be 150 to 200 acres, but manage turf between 70 and 80 acres,” LaVardera said, noting that 75 courses in Canada are fully Audubon International certified. “When classes entered our program, we encouraged them to find ways to reduce and eliminate some managed turf.

“By walking around (the course), you can be sure that you have 3,000 square feet here, 5,000 square feet there, 10,000 square feet here, and before we know it, you can reduce your managed turf by three, four or five acres.”

When a course reduces the turf it manages, it automatically reduces all inputs, including water, chemicals, and less gas for mowers, thereby reducing the overall environmental impact. Other innovations, including more precise robotic lawn mowers and computer-controlled pesticide sprayers, also mean less chemical waste, fuel burned and overall economic savings for golf courses.

The location of the golf course is important because, despite its flaws, it can still represent the best use of the land.

“If the choice is to leave the land that is completely undeveloped and in its natural state, rather than building the golf course, obviously, we would say that it is best for the environment to leave it in a completely natural state,” Lavadra said. “But it’s not the real world, where people own property and people develop property.

“As we all know, golf is a multi-billion dollar global industry, so people build golf courses. Our philosophy is that if you’re building a golf course, or if you’re running a golf course, let’s do the best possible job run it in a sustainable way.”

Stricker noted that most golf courses were originally built outside urban centers, but have spread around, making them the primary radiators and carbon traps for suburban communities.

“A lot of people in the city say, ‘Oh, turn the golf course into a park.’ Great. Who’s going to pay?” Stricker said. “When a golf course closes, it doesn’t become a park. It usually becomes a subdivision.

“And then that’s more paved space and more homes, no green spaces. So in urban spaces, yes, definitely golf courses, that makes the most sense.”

John Chidley-Hill, Canadian Press

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