Northwest Indiana courses maintained with the planet in mind.
by Steve Kaelble
The golf course is such a place of beauty and tranquility–it’s a bit surprising to imagine that a golf course has the potential to have a negative impact on the environment. It’s comforting, then, to learn of the committed environmental stewards who are watching over Northwest Indiana golf courses, and their painstaking efforts to maintain their properties with the health of the planet in mind.
Their mindset is summed up by Erwin McKone, director of golf operations at Briar Ridge Country Club in Schererville. “We are sitting on some valuable green space for our community,” he says. “We’re examining how to make golf go hand-in-hand with solid environmental practices, to make the most of these green spaces.”
Perhaps the most obvious potential environmental concern involves the chemicals needed to keep the course’s turf in top shape. As any homeowner knows, it’s hard to maintain golf-course-quality grass without the help of some herbicides and insecticides, but the days of simply blanketing the course with chemicals are long gone.
Today’s turf-management experts know that doing so is not only unnecessary, it’s expensive and it’s not in the best interests of the environment. “Golf courses are more aware than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” notes Bill Burford, golf course superintendent at The Course at Aberdeen in Valparaiso.
“We’re looking at ways we can reduce the chemicals we put in the environment,” McKone agrees. “We’re looking to the future and to the days when more pesticide bans are taking place.”
“We have a strong management program,” Burford explains. That doesn’t mean all fertilizers and fungicides are out, but it does mean the chemicals used today have evolved into safer varieties. But even more important, says Burford, “We hold off spraying until we have to.”
It’s all part of a concept known as integrated pest management, or IPM. The basic idea is that there are numerous ways to deal with pests–plant or insect–and chemicals represent just one approach. IPM involves creating a course-specific plan based on local situations and conditions. One of the key elements is establishing measurable thresholds of damage, and basing the response on just how bad the problem is. For example, a course won’t apply fungicide to an affected area unless the problem exceeds the established threshold.
Even if the threshold of damage has been met, there may be an option with a lower environmental impact. Beyond chemicals, golf course superintendents may turn to biological solutions, such as predators or parasites, or cultural fixes such as habitat modification. There may be a physical answer, such as soil aeration or increased air movement. A typical IPM plan will emphasize the use of non-chemical solutions first.
The concept sounds sensible, though it’s anything but simple. For one thing, it requires painstaking and sophisticated monitoring. “We do daily monitoring of rainfall amounts and evaporation rates,” Burford notes.
What does that have to do with controlling fungal foes and other unwanted growth? “When it comes to fungus that attack plants, one big key is to keep everything a little on the dry side,” says Brian Yeager, golf course superintendent at White Hawk Country Club in Crown Point. “It’s a balancing act,” he adds. On one hand, it makes sense to water heavily when it’s hot and dry to keep the grass green. On the other hand, water too much at the wrong time and you might exacerbate fungal growth.
The bottom line is that taking care of a golf course in an eco-friendly way involves a lot of science. Burford and other Northwest Indiana golf course superintendents stay on top of the latest research from institutions such as Purdue University.
And many do their own research as well. “We have installed some different test plots out here,” McKone says of Briar Ridge. “We do a fair amount of research to get a better handle on our problem areas.”
For example, “we’re inter-seeding more disease-tolerant grasses and evaluating the methods we use to establish it, and see what does better than others,” he says. The more disease-tolerant the grasses are to begin with, the less likely they’ll need chemical help to stay healthy.
This kind of golf course environmentalism is not just good for the planet–it’s easier on the budget, too. “The economy has changed the way everybody is doing things. The money is not there for spraying as much,” Yaeger says.
Not making blanket applications of chemicals “saves us money in addition to being better for the environment,” agrees John Quickstad, golf course superintendent at Blackthorn Golf Club in South Bend and another IPM proponent.
In fact, according to the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf Courses–which has established a set of principles to help golf courses be better environmental stewards–courses that have adopted eco-friendly practices have enjoyed a 70 percent reduction in pesticide costs, have cut fertilizer costs by two-thirds and have slashed water costs in half. And many report that their efforts have attracted new golfers and members who strive specifically to support green golf courses.
Welcoming Birds and Other Wildlife
Blackthorn is among the courses guided by Audubon’s eco-principles, which include environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, outreach and education. “One of the more obvious things is that we’ve placed bird nesting boxes on the golf course; we have about 30,” Quickstad says. “We’re trying to encourage bluebirds and have been fairly successful.”
Each week a local Audubon member monitors activity in the nesting boxes at Blackthorn. Last year, Quickstad says, “we saw 205 eggs laid, and of those we had 86 bluebirds and 72 tree swallows. We had a 77 percent success rate.” That’s nice for the environment, and for golfers, too. “Bluebirds are a very pretty bird, and they eat insects such as mosquitoes.”
Purple martins have discovered birdhouses built just for them at The Course at Aberdeen, according to Burford. And birds also find a red carpet at Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton, where director of grounds Phil Lau says, “we try to work with Mother Nature and with the wildlife.” That includes such practices as water conservation, less use of chemicals, safer chemical choices and such practices as soil aeration. But it also means reserving areas on the course for wildlife habitats.
The result is a lot of deer, herons, geese, squirrels, raccoons, beavers and foxes–all living in harmony with Sand Creek’s golfers, Lau reports. Another result is recognition from Audubon. Sand Creek announced in January that it has retained its designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a recognition of environmental excellence. Audubon’s current list of certified sanctuaries includes two other courses in the region–Knollwood Country Club in Granger and the William K. and Natalie O. Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame.
Audubon has been recognizing environmentally conscious golf courses for two decades now. In that time, the organization says, nearly all of its member courses have switched to less toxic pesticides, and most are using them more carefully as well. They’re also designing water features with natural shorelines much more frequently, which controls erosion, filters runoff and provides wildlife habitats.
Greens Built Over Brownfields
In Hammond, the Lost Marsh Golf Course has been an eco-friendly course from its very beginning. In fact, its creation was itself an act of environmental stewardship–the cleanup of a brownfield site known rather unaffectionately as Bairstow Mountain.
The hundred-acre eyesore was a slag transfer station run by an entrepreneur named Harry Bairstow, according to Milan Kruszynski, Hammond port authority director. Bairstow piled up slag, a byproduct of steel production, for reclamation. The business closed in the mid-’70s, sat vacant for a couple of decades, landed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, and was just begging to be cleaned up. The city did just that, leveling the mountain, capping it with bottom ash and sculpting it into a lovely green space–most recently topped with a stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired clubhouse.
But the green golf story didn’t end with the creation of Lost Marsh, says Niko Sullivan, golf course administrator. Sullivan runs down a long list of environmentally friendly practices, including electric putting green mowers, the addition of electric golf carts, carefully monitored water and chemical usage, purple martin houses and a concerted effort to establish natural vegetation. The maintenance crew religiously recycles oil, waste fuel and antifreeze, Sullivan says, and washes its equipment on a special pad that drains into a tank where the rinse water biodegrades naturally with the help of microbes.
Lost Marsh, says Sullivan, really wants to share the green space with the Hammond community–and not just golfers. “Two times a year we close the course and allow people to come walk. And in the offseason, we allow sledding.”
Seeing the Big Picture
Back at Briar Ridge, McKone is continuing to seek environmental ways to make the most of the property. “We have a lot of acreage, typically more than we need to play the game,” he says. “So we’re trying to establish natural prairie plants, to establish some prairies lost in the Midwest.”
He’s also read about bee colony collapse disorder, which has been decimating honeybee populations and causing grave environmental concern across the country, given the important role that honeybees play in pollination. With that in mind, “this summer we’re bringing in two honeybee hives,” he says. Golfers needn’t worry, he adds, because these bees are not aggressive at all. But they’re endangered. “There’s been a huge decline, so we thought because this is such a concern and we have the property, we can do the right thing for the environment–and maybe even serve our members fresh honey.”
Briar Ridge wants to keep a close connection to environmental science, and is turning to Purdue University Calumet. “We’re looking for an intern to be a leader of our environmental program, doing data collection, outreach and education. We’re looking to collect water-quality data to get a feel for what’s happening so we know how to treat it.”
The quality of water in a golf course’s ponds and wetlands, McKone says, is not just a matter of local concern. “Most of our water eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. This golf course and watershed affects the fisheries down in Louisiana, so with that in mind, we manage things a little differently. We don’t want to be part of the problem.”