July 22, 2009

"Look over there," Scott Bender said as he stopped the cart and pointed to a green heron skimming across a pond at Griffin Gate Golf Club, one of six Kentucky courses certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. Bender is Griffin Gate's superintendent. With the help of Audubon International and local experts, such as A.J. Powell from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, he created an urban haven for a variety of wildlife and native plants on the course and, in the process, produced a setting in which golfers can enjoy the natural beauty of the game.

"As land managers, we manage a big piece of property, a lot of environment," said Bender, a UK College of Agriculture graduate and is the upcoming president of the Kentucky Turfgrass Council. "It's a diverse environment, and golf courses get a bad name, as it is, for our pesticide use, fertilizers and, more importantly, our water use. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program helps us manage our resources and manage the property in the most environmentally friendly way we can."

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program is an education and certification program that enhances the playing experience and helps golf course superintendents manage their property efficiently and economically, while being good environmental stewards. Certified courses include everything from championship courses renowned for their beauty and level of difficulty, such as U.S. Open hosts Pebble Beach and Bethpage Black, to small municipal courses landlocked by urban development and enjoyed by weekend duffers.

Golf courses seeking certification must meet requirements in six categories: environmental planning; wildlife and habitat management; chemical use reduction and safety; water conservation; water quality management; and outreach and education.

A. J. Powell, UK Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist who consults with golf courses around Kentucky, is a big proponent of the Audubon program.

"If you have men and women university-trained as golf course superintendents, environmentalists, who know about all aspects of the air, natural resources, wildlife and water resources on their courses, it just fits that these superintendents are the perfect people to promote a positive image of golf courses," he said.

Powell and other UK research and extension specialists provide superintendents like Bender with the expertise and research results in turf management, irrigation, water quality, pest avoidance, pesticide selection and natural resources that help them manage their courses more efficiently.

It took Bender approximately two years to achieve certification for Griffin Gate, which he received in April, 2008. He faced some challenges in the process, due to the close proximity of two residential developments and Interstate 75. With no city filter system or catch basin, any pollution from storm sewers in a nearby neighborhood affects his ponds, sometimes resulting in oil slicks from people changing their cars' oil and dumping the used oil into the storm drains. And then there's the interstate to contend with.

"You can only imagine what kind of water quality is coming from the storm drains of the interstate. All the rain off the interstate is entering the property here (on the front nine), and we have the whole creek, all the way to our pond, filtering out the contaminants," Bender said.

To help in that process of filtration, Bender created natural riparian zones along the creek banks, using the vegetation to provide a natural filter for pollutants.

"There are parts of our golf course, when I did my last water test, that we're proud to say water leaving our golf course is better than coming in," he said. "Golf courses get a very bad name for water quality, but we're actually filtering a lot of contaminants that are coming onto our property before they leave. We're very excited about that."

Jim Sluiter, staff ecologist at Audubon International in upstate New York, said benefits could differ for each course in the program. Some members want to be recognized for environmental stewardship, while others' primary concern is reducing their operating costs.

"A good example would be our members in the Southwest and Southeast, of which there are hundreds if not thousands. There, water conservation is the main concern," he said. "Places in the Northeast where phosphorous levels are high or certain areas of the country where stricter regulations are in place, they want to make sure they're still providing a high quality golf experience, but also helping to reduce their overall chemical and nutrient inputs on the property."

For Bender, after mapping his property, drawing up a plan, and establishing native grass and wildflower corridors for wildlife, one of the unexpected benefits was that he has a better understanding of the property as a whole.

"You just see things differently. I would like to think that's a really good thing," he said. "I think my team really enjoyed being a part of this. They felt like they're a part of something more than just coming to work and mowing grass. I'd been here four or five years before I really got into the program. I got a little sense of renewal, a little energy. We're always looking for something to improve on how we're doing things."

Sluiter said this feeling is not unusual.

"I think there's a point of pride that comes along with knowing your property better," he said. "They might know how many acres the golf course holds (before they start the program), but they don't know how many acres of wildlife habitat there are, how many acres of surface water, and again, how their management of the small portion that is the playable golf course impacts the watershed as a whole."

Education is a big component of the program. Certified members are expected to reach out into their communities, to involve local groups, community organizations and municipalities in their efforts. Bender recruited a local scout troop to build and place bat boxes around his course.

"It's a great opportunity to link people together - those who are interested in environmental stewardship opportunities or volunteer opportunities and a golf course who could use that assistance and help," Sluiter said. "I think it's a great educational tool all the way around and hopefully encourages community members or neighbors to look at their properties a little bit different, as well."

Other Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Certified golf courses in the state include: Arlington Association Golf Course in Richmond, Charlie Vettiner Golf Course in Louisville, Kearney Hill Links Golf Course in Lexington, Midland Trail Golf Club in Eastwood and Summit Country Club in Owensboro, which has been certified since 1997.

"In my world, I like to think of it as a great win-win situation," Sluiter said. "They (golf course superintendents) are doing good things, they're improving their practices, they're being recognized for it, and they're saving money."

The UK College of Agriculture's Go Green Web site contains more information about the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses at http://www.ca.uky.edu/gogreen/golf.php.

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Writer: Carol L. Spence, 859-257-8324

UK College of Agriculture, through its land-grant mission, reaches across the commonwealth with teaching, research and extension to enhance the lives of Kentuckians.

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