Green Greens

Golf courses are shedding their reputations as environmental bad guys with the help of Audubon International.

Golf, historically, has had the reputation as an industry that chews up unspoiled forests, wrecks wildlife habitat and pollutes rivers and streams all for the sake of creating just another overly manicured recreational space. Among its most vocal critics has been the Sierra Club, citing the cosmetic use of pesticides and fresh water as major concerns.

But Steven Young, director of golf at the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Club in Alberta, said he also believes that reputation is not always warranted. “I feel a lot of courses in the industry are doing more than given credit for,” Young said. “We just haven’t been proactive about telling people.”

In fact, along a 30-kilometre stretch in and around Banff National Park in Alberta, three golf courses are doing their part to be environmentally friendly, joining Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses. And with Audubon’s validation, the standing of many golf courses in the environmental community might be changing.

Getting up to par

Making Audubon’s list requires properties to maintain high standards in areas such as wildlife habitat management, water conservation and chemical use reduction. Other areas that the organization looks at are water quality management, outreach and education and environmental planning. Fulfilling requirements in all six categories puts a course on the sanctuary list.

In addition to the Banff Springs Golf Club, Silvertip Resort and Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club have also been designated as Audubon sanctuaries, along with more than 75 courses across Canada.

At Banff, groundskeepers put cups out to check the efficiency of the water sprinkler system. During the late 1990s, construction times were limited at Stewart Creek to keep wildlife disruption to a minimum. Silvertip crews use GPS technology to spot spray fairways and greens to reduce the amount of chemicals used on the course.

“There is a cost to be eco-friendly,” said Sean Kjemhus, Stewart Creek golf course superintendent. “Overall, I think golf courses are doing more of what’s right.”

Joining the club

More than 2,200 golf courses across the globe have joined Audubon International’s program and get assistance on environmental issues, and nearly 600 of those courses have the sanctuary program designation. Of the 275 or so courses in Alberta, 12 are sanctuaries. But for some, it’s more than just making a list or getting the attention.

“For us to protect the environment is paramount,” said Greg Andrew, vice president of golf operations at Silver Creek. “We would do it whether Audubon existed or not.”

And what’s unique about Stewart Creek is that it was built around an abandoned coal mine. Architects incorporated many of the old mine entrances into the design of the course.

“This used to be just a brown field—the course wasn’t cut out of a virgin forest,” Kjemhus said. “I think it’s interesting that (Stewart Creek) has gone from an incredibly insensitive area through the coal mining days to an incredibly sensitive area with a golf course.”

While reducing their carbon footprints, each of these three facilities has not sacrificed the quality of the course from a golfer’s standpoint. Banff Springs, Stewart Creek and Silvertip all rank consistently high among golf course critics.

With incredible vistas, world-renowned golf course architects and well-maintained grounds, these courses have shown that an internationally acclaimed golf course can also be environmentally friendly.

“Some courses make decisions based on finances,” Andrew said, “but if it’s the right thing to do, we should do it.

“It costs you a little bit of money in the beginning, but it pays unbelievable benefits when you do it.”

Other green golf course initiatives:

Green Greens (Ontario)

Coalition for Responsible Golf (Quebec)

Royal Canadian Golf Association’s Environmental Guidelines (National)

Integrated Pest Management Accredited Golf Courses (Ontario)