Here’s my question. How do you assess the ecological impact of multiple golf course developments? Specifically, how is our local environment changed when one or more golf courses are constructed and operated at the head of nearly every watershed in the county?
The immediate event triggering this question, of course, is today’s dam break at the Balsam Mountain Preserve golf course, purportedly designed by Arnold Palmer. But it has been a question on my mind for the past couple of years due to the frenzy of elite subdivision development in the mountains of Jackson County, NC.
For now, I’ll set aside the cultural impacts of this development. Suffice it to say that outside corporations have barged in, overrun traditional mountain communities and turned the land into a commodity, "product" to be sold via slick marketing campaigns. It’s not a particularly new pattern, but reflects a form of imperialism that has played out on the American continent for the past 500 years. Exaggerated claims about the abundance and beauty of the land have been used to attract investors for centuries. In the same vein, you can go to the website for any of these new developments and see the image of an idealized life in mountain paradise. Toss in the astronomical prices paid and ungodly amounts of money to be made, and it sets the stage for economic and political conflict, such as what we’re seeing with the creation of the subdivision and steep slope ordinances.
To return to the original question, how do you assess the ecological impact? With the failure of the Balsam Mountain Preserve dam, one million gallons of water rushed into Cripple Creek, a tributary of Scott’s Creek, which feeds into the Tuckasegee River. In February of this year a Cripple Creek resident went on record to describe the damage to the stream caused by Balsam Mountain Preserve, with sediment from erosion making the stream unfit for trout. At the same meeting this February, a Balsam Mountain spokesman dismissed the complaint, and defended the developer’s actions. Well, if Cripple Creek was not silted up before the dam break, it most certainly is now. That’s one impact on the environment from one golf course.
This wasn’t the first Jackson County golf course disaster. From a Sylva Herald news story in 2000:
In what is believed to be the largest award ever handed down in Jackson County, a local jury March 13 gave a Highlands family $500,000 in compensation for damage to their lake.
Plaintiff Whiteside Estates, a family corporation represented by Earl and David Young of Highlands, proved to the jury's satisfaction that construction at Highlands Cove, a planned golf course and residential community upstream, caused irreparable harm to 18-acre Young Lake.
Both the Youngs' property and Highlands Cove are located in southern Jackson County near the intersection of U.S. 64 and Norton Road between Cashiers and Highlands. The jury considered awarding even more money to the Youngs, said juror Robin Schaeffer of Sylva. Damages of around $2 million were favored by most members of the jury, she said, with the half-million dollar verdict a compromise with a juror who held out for a lower award.
Before-and-after photographs of the lake, plus evidence from experts about the turbidity (amount of particulate matter suspended in a given amount of water) and loss of wildlife, convinced her to find in favor of the Youngs.
The debacles of Highlands Cove and Balsam Mountain Preserve should be enough to raise questions, and doubts, in the minds of all but the most avaricious. Beyond the occasional catastrophes associated with massive land disturbance on mountain headwaters, what are the ongoing and less obvious impacts from an epidemic of golf course construction?
In a report outlining the problems with expansion of a golf course in Massachusetts, several ecological impacts were discussed, but it boiled down to habitat fragmentation:
In order to function as a forest ecosystem and maintain biodiversity, there must be sufficient acreage of continuous woods to support breeding and feeding territories of wildlife species. This is not possible when forest areas are "fragmented" through development. Fragmentation is, in fact, one of the two major cause of habitat destruction and the consequent loss of global biodiversity.
Constructing an additional nine holes would, at a minimum, fragment Salem Woods with golf fairways, leaving only small patches of wooded areas. These wooded patches, isolated from each other, would not be a forest ecosystem any more than patches of trees in the yards of houses on a rural street could be considered a forest.
The loss of species from fragmentation of Salem Woods would be dramatic. This past summer, our comparison of vegetation diversity between areas in Salem Woods and comparable habitats within the Olde Salem Greens boundaries was completed (see Appendix). Sixty-five different plant species were identified within three Salem Woods habitats while only thirty different species were identified within the comparable golf course habitats. The bulk of the golf course land, the fairway areas, of course, contain very little vegetation diversity.
Concerns have been raised about an "Arnold Palmer designed" course in Minnesota:
Deacon's Lodge typifies most new golf course development. It isn't built on a rare ecological community, yet it isn't built on land that had been plowed, pastured, or mined, either. Instead, it flows through a natural landscape, which is ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others.
"We look hard for the right land," said Peter Loyd, golf director for Sienna Corp., developer of Deacon's Lodge. "This property was ideal because it had it all--three wilderness lakes, wetlands, rolling topography, tall Norway pine that loggers never cut, and bright white clumps of birch. Deacon's Lodge has a great north woods feel to it. And it's all sitting on about 170 feet of pure sand that's ideal for growing grass."
Score card: One over par. The golf course ripped up natural woodlands and wildlife habitat, but at least the plant and animal communities weren't considered rare in the Brainerd area.
The values that developers seek for golfers--lakes, rolling forest, and gorgeous vistas--are values shared by many other people, who couldn't care less if they ever sink a 40-foot putt. This nongolfing public also worries about new residential development and gas stations, convenience stores, and service businesses that inevitably spring up around golf courses and other recreation areas.
Over time, the more bent grass that grows, the less habitat for wildlife and native plant species. In the forested parts of the state, for example, golf courses reduce the amount of interior forest used by songbirds such as the ovenbird and wood thrush. The forest that does remain--actually strips of trees between fairways--shelters skunks, white-tailed deer, and other common species. However, these strips make poor habitat for species that are uncommon and becoming more so each decade. As a whole, Minnesota's forests are becoming more edge rich and interior poor.
"Most rare species have very specific needs," says Pam Perry, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) nongame specialist at Brainerd. "The more the landscape is fragmented, the more it fails to meet the needs of certain plants and animals."
Closer to home, the proliferation of headwaters golf courses brings other problems. Maintaining the desired "look" of the turf and golf course landscaping requires significant amounts of fertilizer and pesticides applied over large areas, and allowed to runoff into surface waters and leach into the groundwater. Widespread application of the chemicals undoubtedly compounds the pressures on plant and animal life, already struggling with fragmentation of habitat and, possibly, with the intentional introduction of non-native plant species on the golf course.
Finally, Golf Environment Europe summarizes the problems associated with golf development projects:
Loss of species and habitats.
Degradation of landscape quality.
Damage to historical landscapes and cultural heritage features.
Pressure on water resources.
Impacts on water quality from siltation, runoff and leachate of fertilisers and pesticides.
Fragmentation of habitats.
These concerns are combined with other, wider worries about golf development, which include:
Associated real estate development.
Pretext for urbanisation, especially so in tourism areas.
Piecemeal approach to development.
Inconsistent application of planning regulations.
Highly variable standards of Environmental Assessment.
Unpredictable planning outcomes.
This barely scratches the surface. But the implications of upstream golf course development throughout Jackson County and many other parts of the mountains deserve a closer look than they’ve received to date.
Maybe that’s one lesson we’re supposed to learn from today’s flood.
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