Bye-bye Golf Courses, Hello Nature Preserves
The Great Recession had at least one silver lining for wildlife: Golf courses are being turned into natural protected places.
At the Ocean Meadows Golf Club in Goleta, California, the ping of an iron hitting a dimpled ball is gradually but inexorably fading from the fairway. Taking its place will be the whistles of white-tailed kites, the chirps of snowy plovers, and the warbles of tree swallows as the University of California-Santa Barbara transforms the 64-acre, nine-hole course into a nature preserve during the next two years.
Even as golfers played the course last summer, Lisa Stratton, who’s consulting on the project through the university’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration, zipped around in a cart with a graduate student. They stopped every so often to drill soil cores—dodging golf balls in the process. In a lab, native plants were grown in the sampled dirt to determine which species to plant during the ongoing restoration. University researchers are also looking at how water will move through the ecosystem to see how quickly flooded areas will drain after rainstorms, and conducting bird surveys to see which species have already taken up residence on the property.Santa Barbara Chapter of the Audubon Society, which will lead bird tours on the site, and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. “You so rarely get the chance to turn back the clock.”
By lowering land prices and decreasing disposable income, the Great Recession created a windfall for conservationists seeking to bring nature back to urban and suburban areas. At least half a dozen courses across the country are being converted to nature preserves or parks. From New Orleans, Louisiana, to Portland, Oregon, wildlife advocates are funding this work in a variety of ways, including private donations and federal grants.
Although golf has enjoyed explosive global popularity in recent decades, the number of golfers in the United States actually fell by some 16 per-cent between 2003 and 2011, from more than 30 million to fewer than 26 million, says the National Golf Foundation. The number of rounds played per course decreased by 2.5 percent between 2010 and 2011. Golf memberships are down, too, by a million since the early 1990s. As a result, fewer courses can afford to stay open.
Reimagining golf courses pays off well beyond a park’s boundaries. Maintaining fairways and greens typically requires heavy applications of pesticides and fertilizers—which can run off and pollute local waterways—not to mention enormous quantities of water. (Audubon-certified courses are not affiliated with the National Audubon Society.) A study published in 2006 in the journal Sport in Society reported that although the amount of chemicals sprayed on courses varies, an average of 1.5 tons of agrochemicals—some of them known carcinogens—is used on golf courses every year. What’s more, 90 percent of those substances, when sprayed, end up in the air, where people inhale them. Building golf courses also destroys habitat and muddies streams to the detriment of aquatic life.
Back in 2006 the owner of Florida’s Wildflower Golf Club, an 18- hole course between Sarasota and Fort Myers, had been preparing to sell the unprofitable private course to a devel- oper. Then the Lemon Bay Conservancy stepped in. The group secured $750,000 in 15 months from private donations—more money than it had ever raised before—to take on what would be its biggest project yet. “Over the years we’ve acquired some small properties,” says Eva Furner, a conservancy director. “We had never taken on anything like trying to buy an 80-acre golf course and turn it into a preserve.”
The first step in the restoration involved murder—of the invasive Brazilian pepper. The plant had quickly overrun the course, tucked between cul-de-sacs and tennis courts near the coast, after it closed in 2006. “It was a jungle, com- pletely impenetrable,” says Bill Dunson, a Penn State biology professor emeritus who is assisting with the restoration. Armed with a machete, Dunson did battle with the plant, and soon he and his colleagues could see some of what the tangle of vegetation had hidden. Surveyors were surprised to find that many migratory songbirds, including purple martins, nest in the area. For other species, including painted buntings, the site offers critical stopover habitat.