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.
The conservancy is slowly turning the property, now called the Wildflower Preserve, into a protected oasis by cutting trails, putting up signs, conducting bird surveys, and offering bird walks. There are echoes of its former identity, such as an area of lawn and a few manmade ponds, but after three years of work the site is starting to resemble a park more than a golf course.
The change comes just in time for marine life. “The watershed was directly emptying right out into Lemon Bay, and it was a huge source of pollutants,” says Alex Size, who worked on the Florida conversion and now manages the Ocean Meadows project in California. Fertilizers and pesticides no longer drain into the water. Working with Mote Marine Laboratory, the conservancy found that a saltwater creek—part of a series of interconnected wetlands—is a nursery for tarpon, a popular sport fish. Named “silver kings” by anglers because sunlight reflects brilliantly off of their large scales, these fish usually inhabit warm coastal waters. Females can top eight feet and reach 350 pounds. A graduate student is tagging the tarpon, which are losing critical natal habitat to development and pollution, to study their habits.
“In the 80 acres, which is really a postage stamp, we just have this diversity of habitat,” from wetlands to forest, says Dunson. “You can rarely make it what it used to be,” he adds, but you can still create places where species from sportfish to tropical birds can thrive.
The only trace of the Squires Golf Course at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve on Lake Michigan is the large clubhouse a few yards from the road. Where closely cropped greens and sand traps once dotted rolling hills, long grasses and stands of saplings now thrive. Birds whistle, chirp, and cackle in this Port Washington, Wisconsin, oasis established especially for them. According to Golf Digest, the state ranks fifth in the United States for number of top-rated public golf courses per capita—71 for 5.7 million people—after Hawaii, South Carolina, Nevada, and Michigan.
Shawn Graff and Noel Cutright climb into a leftover golf cart for a tour. “We started to realize that it was critical stopover habitat that would have the ability to attract native as well as migratory birds,” such as upland sandpipers, Wilson’s phalaropes, and red-throated loons, says Graff, executive director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. The group purchased the land for $2.54 million with funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and private donations. In addition, the trust received $454,000 in 2010 federal stimulus grant money earmarked for restoration in the Great Lakes region.
Driving the cart down to the shoreline, Graff allows that this success might only slightly improve Lake Michigan’s water quality. Still, every little bit helps. Last year algal blooms arrived earlier than usual because of a warm spring and an abundance of phosphorus and nitrogen. When the site was a golf course manag- ers pumped about 15 million gallons of water a year on the property to keep the grasses lush, and applied six tons of fertilizer. Today’s property managers eschew chemicals, and water as little as possible, says Graff. He receives a dozen calls a year, from New York homeowners to golf course owners in Alabama, seeking advice about how to buy and convert developed properties into habitat.
The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust followed Cutright’s suggestion not to try to restore the property to its original habitat. A renowned birder in the Mid- west who has been leading bird walks for 50 years, Cutright took into account that half of the wetlands and 60 percent of the forested areas in the Great Lakes region have been lost. So to attract avian spe- cies, he proposed a mix of those habitats alongside open areas and shrublands.
So far a hardwood forest, grasslands, and ephemeral ponds are spread over 142 acres, and Cutright and others have iden- tified more than 220 different species in just over two years. “We’ve got to provide these places for them,” he says, steering a golf cart toward an oak savannah. “The more you string them together, the more that will come. It’s prime real estate, and there are not too many opportunities to buy a piece of property like this.” In the distance a turkey runs across a grass path, as if accentuating his point.
Meanwhile, Forster’s terns sit on nests in the wetlands, their orange legs tucked beneath deeply forked tails. East- ern meadowlarks, unmistakable with their vibrant yellow chests marked with a black V, sing their melodic songs on forest edges. Lapland longspurs forage for seeds and insects in the meadows. In the summer they’ll migrate to the Arctic to mate and breed, returning to the preserve with their young in the fall.
The property is even winning some surprising converts. Bruce Bloemer, who owned the course for nearly 16 years and says things like “golf is in my blood,” stops by, too. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “I’m a nature person, and I love the outdoors and the wildlife and clean lakes and rivers and streams and woods.”
As the economy recovers and development pressures resume, the uptick in efforts to turn golf courses into preserves may slow. Even so, at least hundreds of acres of newly restored natural areas will endure, providing pockets of habitat that may become even more ecologically priceless as other wild spaces disappear.
This story originally ran in the September-October 2013 issue as "Run Its Course."