Friday, June 8, 2007

Sustainable Golf - An Oxymoron?

When it comes to the Balsam Mountain Preserve golf course dam break, we find a whole run of coincidences besides the ones I’ve already mentioned.

Yes, a big public hearing on the Jackson County subdivision and steep slope ordinances is coming up Monday night.

The chairman of the county commissioners is employed by Balsam Mountain Preserve.

BMP stands for Balsam Mountain Preserve AND (they would have you believe) Best Management Practices.

And we can examine a most interesting case history of another golf course developed by Chaffin Light, the company behind Balsam Mountain Preserve.

First of all, a cynic might look at the Balsam Mountain Preserve marketing hype and recognize that it’s easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. Nothing surprising about that. BMP dispenses this gobbledygook about their golf "amenities":

Long known for creating courses that proactively maintain an ecologically sound environment in order to bring tradition and an extraordinary experience to the game, Palmer's courses are designed to connect golfers to the land - a goal that resonates with the lifestyle and values of Balsam Mountain Preserve.

The cynic might want to be a fly on the wall as the BMP folks huddle with their attorneys, strategizing about who they might sue, or who might sue them, as a result of the dam break. Tense moments, to be sure.

On the other hand, a generous person might give Balsam Mountain Preserve the benefit of the doubt. The case history involves pemaculturalists influencing the design of a golf course at a Chaffin Light development in Colorado.

Peter Bane and Jerome Osentowski wrote of their experiences in Golf in the Garden, Designing the Permaculture Links. The story begins with Chaffin Light submitting a proposal for a golf course development to the Basalt, CO town council:

The town council were caught in a squeeze. The proposal couldn’t go through without their permission, but the developers owned the land and could ultimately force the issue through the courts if the Basalt councilors refused. Sentiment among town residents was implacable: no golf course.

Osentowski saw an opportunity to apply permaculture practices in order to achieve a compromise in the conflict:

Jerome’s first thoughts were "What can be done to make a golf course useful?" After all, there was almost no more potent symbol anywhere on the planet of idle wealth, toxic consumption, and artificial control of nature than this odd setting for executive sport. Could it be in any way redeemed? Permaculture training and practice intruded immediately and an edible landscape came to mind, then thoughts of how to balance the diverse elements required. Years of working with market gardens, organic greenhouses, and a forest garden at 7,000 feet in the Rockies had not been idle play. Jerome was well versed in concepts and techniques of integrated pest management (IPM), and knew the value of hedgerows for crop protection in traditional agriculture. But what would it look like on the golf course? He began to focus on the use of flowering plants to create an outdoor insectary and habitat for bug-eating birds.

The concept of BioIslands was born. Hot spots of diversity occupying all the "out-of-bounds" sections of the course, they would form the backbone of a new golf-centered ecosystem. The BioIslands would carry nature’s helpers throughout the other 262 acres of the course by creating a long, rich edge of native and beneficial plant communities to protect the more vulnerable greens and fairways from devastation by cruncher-munchers. What other golf course operators kept at bay with sub-lethal doses of pesticides, BioIslands at the Roaring Fork Club would suppress with waves of beneficial wasps, lacewings, syrphid flies, and lady beetles, deliriously happy amidst acres of umbels, wildflowers, native trees and flowering shrubs. If it worked, the strategy might just save the developers’ bacon: it would not only allow them to show the townsfolk they could avoid most of the toxic chemicals usual to golf course management, but it would be beautiful in a way most well-groomed links only pretended to be.

Permaculture principles provided solutions to some of the problems associated with conventional golf courses - sedimentation, chemical runoff, and habitat destruction.

The theme of working with nature caught the ear of the developers. Chaffin and Light had already made moves in this direction with their earlier project at Spring Island, pioneering a new, natural style of course. At Basalt pressures from the townspeople helped push ecological sensitivity to the forefront. Wetlands along the river would be retained, rather than filled, and additional wetlands created; existing riparian forest would be incorporated into the out-of-bounds. Fly fishing was to be a second major attraction of the resort and a series of lakes would be built serving as hazards for the golf course and as habitat for different species of trout. The nutrient-rich water would provide a source of chemical-free fertilizer when it was used to irrigate the greens and fairways. Restoration became an important focus as well. An existing irrigation ditch would be transformed into a man-made trout stream that splashed and babbled beneath cottonwoods and willows as it meandered through the guest cabins.

A couple of years into the project, the authors looked back on the success of the permaculture-informed golf course:

The BioIslands strategy helped sell the course to the town of Basalt. And the beauty of the wildflower meadows filled the sails of the marketing staff during a hard time when a conventional landscape job might have driven the project onto the rocks. Long-term costs will be lower as maintenance diminishes and savings from avoided spray costs mount up. There is a large advantage from the reduced toxic exposure to workers and golfers alike with significantly reduced risk and liability costs. The perennial backbone of the golf course has a great resiliency to changing climate and environmental stresses that results in savings to the bottom line. And careful environmental stewardship has helped the Club win and keep prestigious Audubon certification, a feather in its cap that helps it reach a small but growing niche market of environmentally aware golfers.

A reasonably happy story, for a change. Balsam Mountain Preserve doesn’t miss many opportunities to claim a deep concern for the environment, but it rings hollow at times. The citizens of Basalt did their job to demand that Chaffin Light live up to the marketing hype. With golf courses perched on the headwaters of almost every major creek in the county, the citizens of Jackson County still have a long way to go.

Golf Environment Europe spells out some general principles for new golf course development. It would be prudent to demand nothing less from the golf courses spreading over our mountains:

All people have a right to live, recreate and prosper in a quality environment where:
There are sufficient natural resources
Landscapes and cultural heritage are not degraded
Biodiversity is not continually damaged
Pollution of air and water is not detrimental to quality of life
This is relevant to the development of golf courses.


There are many situations where well designed, constructed and managed golf courses can enhance the local environment. There are many examples of this across Europe. These cases show that new golf courses can bring a number of positive environmental outcomes, alongside other social and economic contributions:
Bringing habitats under long term, consistent conservation management.
Enhancing biological diversity and species richness.
Enhancing landscape ecology, creating larger habitat patch sizes with greater connectivity.
Enhancing landscape character and visual quality.
Conserving landscapes of cultural and historical importance.
Conserving archaeological and other cultural heritage features.
Improving water quality - reducing runoff and leachate of fertilisers and pesticides from previous levels (e.g. agriculture and industry).
Creating microclimates, shade and increasing soil and air moisture levels in warm climates.
Acting as 'green lungs' in towns and cities, mitigating air pollution and carbon release.

On the other hand, golf courses sited in inappropriate locations and those designed and built without due regard for environmental factors can have significant negative environmental impacts.

I wonder how many more disasters like Highlands Cove and Balsam Mountain Preserve it will take before the people who actually live in this community (for more than one or two weeks a year) demand a more enlightened approach to the development of golf courses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great blog! Was interested in the BMP dam failure...