Audubon International initiative allowing nature, courses to coexist

Organization's Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf courses heads into 2023 with significant momentum

Golf, unlike other outside sports such as football, baseball or soccer, offers a unique playing environment each time you tee up a ball.

Outside of the personal challenge of trying to go low or beating your buddy is the allure of the scenic surroundings of a round with family or friends. But few likely ponder how that environment was built — or even more importantly — is maintained while sipping a beverage at the 19th hole.  

The sport’s resurgence during the COVID-19 era shined a light on many phases of the game, and maybe none more important than the recent emphasis developers, golf architects and superintendents have placed on properly managing the course’s environmental impacts on the surrounding land, water and animal habitat.

With now about 2,000 golf course members worldwide, spanned over 34 countries, the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program is the driving force behind certifying and honoring golf layouts that promote environmentally friendly practices.

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Big Cedar Lodge's Payne's Valley Golf Course, a public-access course near Branson, Missouri, is a member of the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Golfers have seen the Audubon signs at various golf facilities and wondered what the program was about or how courses received the recognition. 

"There is a demand for this. Younger families these days want to be assured that they are bringing their families to a golf course or resort that is implementing sustainable practices," says Frank LaVardera, Audubon International Director of Environmental Programs for Golf.

The New York-based organization’s Signature Sanctuary Certification Program for new courses or ones with major renovations has taken off over the last few years and possesses some serious momentum heading in to 2023. Approximately 8 to 10 new courses each year now are entering this program, in addition to the more established ones already applying through the standard Sanctuary Certification Program.

"Golf course architects are starting to look at their designs and pay attention to where the draining from the greens is going, where the fairway drains go and general runoff goes, using bioswales to encourage that water to infiltrate where it can as opposed to running off the course," LaVardera says. "It is the same principal as your lawn. The best way to keep the weeds out of your lawn is to have a nice, big, healthy patch of grass that will choke out the weeds and you won’t need an herbicide to kill the weeds. It is the same kind of principles on the golf course."

One such architect is Harrison Minchew, who recently designed RainDance in Colorado, the nation’s longest course and one with tons of natural scenery and diverse topography. 

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"I have been an advocate for the principles of the Audubon Sanctuary program for decades as the former director of design services with Arnold Palmer Design," Minchew says. "Preservation and enhancement of plant and animal habitat, and selection of drought tolerant grasses to minimize water consumption are essential to the environmental viability of a golf course. Also promoting best management practices that minimize application of fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides, not only enhance the environment of a course, but at the same time, allow it to be economically viable."

Minchew noted his focus on the environment when designing RainDance.

"RainDance is on a very diverse habitat," Minchew says. "The focus of the design was to minimize the disturbance of a unique arid environment with the use of drought tolerant fescue grasses. Even though RainDance is the longest golf course in the United States its 75 acres of irrigated turf is significantly below the average. Becoming a member of the Audubon Sanctuary Program will be our focus at RainDance."

The Sanctuary Certification Program started 35 years ago, but the first courses weren’t certified until 1991.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Audubon International has put environmentally sustainable management practices in place around the world through education, technical assistance, certification and recognition. Several of its longstanding education and certification programs have received national awards and the organization has enrolled more than 4,000 properties in the golf, recreation and hospitality industries.

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Barbados' Apes Hill Club is one of more than 2,000 courses in 34 countries that make up the Audubon International program.

The golf certification process has six environmental friendly components, which even includes how chemicals are stored at courses or where equipment is washed. There are also site visits and a recertification process on a rotating basis every three years.

"So what motivates a course to join? There are a variety of reasons," LaVardera says. "There are superintendents who want to have that documented third party verification that they are doing the right thing; there are courses that are using it as a draw in terms of private clubs, things like ‘be a member of our club because we do operate in a very environmentally sustainable manner.’

"I came to the organization four years ago, but prior to that I worked 36 years in the environmental consulting business so I have a pretty vast knowledge of environmental issues and what motivates people from an environmental standpoint,” he added. “One of the things that struck me immediately when I came to the organization was just about the overwhelming majority of golf course superintendents who really are what I will call ‘stewards of the environment.’ They want to do the right thing as far as the environment and the relationship their course has with the environment. I see it especially with the young guys that are coming out of schools with turfgrass programs, to where the curriculum in those programs at those schools actually are discussing the relationship between course operations and the environment. They are coming out of school already aware of where you can get in trouble on a golf course in respect to the environment."

And then there is just the sheer economics of it, from using less chemicals to treat fewer mowed areas, to labor savings.

"Implementing sustainable standards, whether they are ours or somebody else’s, are going to help you save money on your maintenance budget," LaVardera says. “Our surveys have documented where courses that are in our program are saving 10-18 percent on their maintenance budgets because of reduced inputs across the course."

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The 18th hole at St. Regis Bahia Beach and Golf Resort in Puerto Rico.

Mark Johnson, the director of environmental programs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says environmental management programs and environmental management systems are based upon Total Quality Management principles — plan-do-check-act — which are well documented and recognized for providing a sound business case (value) as well as environmental protection.

"Golf is fortunate to have golf centric environmental programs like Audubon International and others that provide cost savings, risk management, improved image, employee engagement/attractiveness, etc. and help to ensure wise use of resources as well as environmental protection," Johnson says. "These programs focus on key environmental areas such as water use/protection, land management, and energy/air quality in light of golf course design, operations, and help superintendents to achieve success on the course with playing surfaces, maintenance facilities, and natural/native areas."

The Audubon programs also encompass a wide range of courses. For example, Pine Valley Golf Club has been a member since 1999, while there are numerous municipal layouts across North America and Canada who are also members.   

"I like to say it’s not a function of who plays on the course but how the course is maintained,” LaVardera says. “My point is it’s not an elitist program, this program is not designed solely for high-end courses. It has members at all levels of affluence.

"We as a population have started to understand our human relationship with the environment and we like to say our programs go beyond golf and help where the natural environment meets human development, and what we like to call the ‘built environment.' There is that heightened awareness over the last number of years that people understand our relationship with the environment, and the past it hasn’t always been that way, so we’re trying to improve on that. In the end, the backbone of the program is that managed turf.”