COLLEGE STATION — When rural, overgrown land north of Houston was purchased in the late 1950s for a golf course, many a saw blade got dull making the place look “civilized.”
“Now we know we’re in the city, and we’ve gone 180 degrees — we are trying to make the place be more like it was in the natural setting,” said Charles Joachim, superintendent at Champions Country Club which now is surrounded by urban sprawl. “It’s the right thing to do.”
But how to take golf courses from the manicured, pesticide-laden image of a few decades ago towards well-managed, pristine courses that permit quality play among wildlife and natural plant settings is the stroke many current course superintendents are after.
More than 70 golf courses in Texas, such as Champions, are pursuing certification as wildlife sanctuaries under a program by the Audubon Society of New York State, an independent, non-profit organization, and the United States Golf Association. Lake Side Country Club in Houston is the first fully certified course in Texas, according to Audubon ecologist Marla Briggs.
Some 2,000 golf courses in the United States and Canada have paid a $100 membership fee with intent to pursue the program, and 95 have completed the strenuous, six-part program since its inception in 1991, she said.
But a unique boost to the effort in Texas, where long sunny days have sparked a passion for golf played on some 900 courses, comes from Texas A&M University. For several golf courses, turfgrass students have teamed with turfgrass researcher Dr. Richard White to provide the first step toward certification. The group offers to conduct initial resource assessment surveys documenting the wildlife and plant species that already exist on the course.
“Texas A&M’s turf students have been tops with this effort,” Briggs said. “We’ve talked to some other universities about doing this, but Texas A&M has been the leader so far.”
White said working with golf courses — where most turf majors hope to land jobs after graduation — is an excellent teaching tool.
“The students know this is important for the environment,” White said. “They see the golf course as a whole — not just the turf — and start thinking about ways to make it better. They get to begin applying principles they are learning in class.”
Briggs said the wildlife sanctuary certification program begins with the resource inventory. From that, the Audubon Society of New York writes a report on environmental planning specific to the particular golf course. Next a workbook is provided to the golf course, with five segments: water quality management, water conservation, integrated pest management, wildlife and habitat management, and outreach and education. Full certification may take one to three years depending on the environmental condition of the golf course when it begins, she said.
“A golf course can do all five at once or one or two at a time,” Briggs said. “When they finish the workbook, we review and, if all is satisfactory, accept it for full certification.”
The Texas A&M students begin the process by dividing into teams for photography, property/adjoining land use, plant inventory, wildlife inventory and superintendent information. White said that by working in teams — each with a leader and several members — the group can complete the resource assessment in a day.
“We put at least 100 man-hours in during one day,” White said. That’s something a golf course superintendent would find it difficult to do given time commitments.
“I gave the students some pointers on where to find wildlife and native plants, but I would not have had time to do it myself,” Joachim said.
Beginning the wildlife sanctuary certification program at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas was one of Keith Ihms’ first actions as golf course superintendent. Having the students available to do the initial resource inventory allowed Ihms to concentrate on other duties in his new position without neglecting the important first step toward certification.
“Some people have the impression that we (at golf courses) spray with a lot of pesticides and waste water,” Ihms said. “But we are doing what we can to change that.”
Ihms said Bent Tree plans to use the resource inventory completed by the Texas A&M students to help educate and inform their members and surrounding community about the wildlife that lives there. And, he has plans to have a local private school build nesting boxes for various species of birds that frequent the golf course.
White pointed out that an open door policy for increased wildlife populations can have drawbacks — bird droppings, divots in the turf from large mammals, or putting natural habitats in the wrong places causing golfers to lose more balls or slowing play, to name a few.
Ihms agreed. But he said Bent Tree has an environmental solution for much of that — the course contracts with a humane trapper to remove problem animals and relocate them on neighboring ranches, for example. The trapper also recently rescued and sent to a rehab facility some baby beavers that were homeless due to the heavy rains.
White said it is that kind of example the students realize as a result from working on the resource assessments.
“The exposure is great. This project has increased the students’ awareness of environmental concerns and is something that they will carry with them through their careers,” White noted.