By Michael J. Hurdzan, Ph.D.*
Course Design for Reduced Inputs
The goal of an environmentally friendly golf course is to require the smallest possible input of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels, yet produce desirable conditions for playing golf and wildlife. Maximum success requires a special commitment and competency of management and staff, as well as an education of golfers and environmentalists.
Golf courses that set such environmental goals can reduce overall operational costs, as well as give themselves a marketing advantage in competitive markets. For people these objectives are most easily met if they are articulated in the planning phase, emphasized during the construction phase, and are adhered to during the operations phase.
Perhaps one of the most important things to realize is that although the goal is the same for all golf courses, the strategies and mechanics of implementation will be different for each golf course. The reason is that true environmental design is microclimate driven, and no two golf courses will have precisely the same topography, wind, soils, vegetation, irrigation water quality and quantity, hypsographic or microclimatic dynamics, or the same influences from nearby habitats. Any of those factors can have a profound effect on the form and function of a golf course built on, in, and among them. Consequently there are no hard and fast rules to follow for environmental golf design, but rather there are philosophies and procedures that guide decision-making and planning. It can be a complex endeavor, for the purpose of this paper, an attempt will be made to simplify the process.
Planning begins with research of the site by a team of specialists that commonly include:
Optional team members could include:
- Owner or owner’s representative
- Golf course architect
- Civil engineer
- Environmental firm
- Golf course superintendent
- Financial advisor
- Legal advisor
- Clubhouse architect
Information typically produced about the proposed site during the research phase usually includes:
- Restorative ecologists
- Habitat specialist
- Political advisor/marketing consultant
1. Property lines
2. Topography lines
3. Restricted areas
4. Underground utilities
5. Rights-of-way, easements, etc.
7. Historic sites
8. Other significant site features
9. Hydrologic surveys
10. Soil surveys
11. Zoning restrictions
12. Environmental assessment
13. Political process review
14. Slope analysis & limitations
15. Vegetation survey
16. Flooding potential
17. Endangered species or communities
18. Buffer around special areas
As results of research into these site factors are obtained, they are usually placed into the computer in layers so that any combination can be mixed or matched to produce whatever base map is required. As part of this same research phase, each area of special concern or resource area is assigned a priority for protection or avoidance, so if compromises must be made, they occur in the least valuable areas.
An extremely important part of the site assessment is identification of possible sources of irrigation water and a quality analysis and availability forecast for each. The reason that water testing is so important is that the quality or quantity of the water can influence selection of the best cultivars of grass to be used, which in turn may affect root zone or planting bed design, construction or modification. For instance if its found that the water quality is high in salts, this may favor salt tolerant cultivars, and a more open architecture of the root zone, along with perhaps a mechanical system (SubAir soil air technology) for inducing rapid and complete drainage of the root zone. Similarly if water quality is good and an “A” or “G” series bentgrass is selected, this will influence the fineness of the expected topdressing which in turn will dictate the particle size distribution of the root zone to avoid “layering” by the topdressing over the root zone. Never before has water quality and quantity, cultivar selection and root zonearchitecturally been so intrinsically linked as in this emergency era of environmentally friendly golf courses and new technologies and products.
After the research phase but before any golf holes are planned, engineering factors will determine ingress and egress locations, main traffic patterns, and suitable clubhouse and parking locations. Occasionally the golf course designers can select the clubhouse site, but most often the golf course designer is given possible clubhouse location that meet engineering criteria, and then he or she must see what kind of golf course each location will yield.
Environmentally friendly golf courses begin at this earliest stage of routing for the environmental golf course designer tries to avoid placing the most heavily maintained portions of the course (tees and greens), in the most stressful microclimates. Concerns about morning shade, dead air, high humidity, prevailing winds and natural drainage are blended with concerns about habitats, migration patterns of critters, fragmentation of special plant communities and construction and operations procedures. Naturally, the planning team must make intelligent compromises for it is almost impossible to avoid all negative impacts. The goal is to make the least negative impact by first trying to avoid all sensitive areas, but if necessary then mitigate those of lowest value.
Once the “best” routing plan is agreed upon and permitted by the appropriate agencies, then the designer must incorporate into the plans and specifications those principles, practices and products that will produce an attractive golf course with the least amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuel used for maintenance. Sadly many golf course designers either don’t understand the importance of proper environmental design, or lack the knowledge of how to do it, or they simply don’t care.
If a site is blessed with good topsoil, then the golf course designer should recognize how precious and fragile topsoil is. Even if topsoil is stripped and stored in the most careful manner, it looses some of its tilth and texture. So disturbing the least amount of topsoil possible is one way to preserve those physical, chemical and biological properties that allow turfgrasses to grow vigorously and naturally ward off pests and predators. Similarly, planting the best-adapted types and cultivars of grasses helps reduce inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides.
But at times, earthmoving and the resulting destruction of soil profiles and functions must be done to realize greater environmental gains; especially if the earthmoving is being done to improve the overall drainage of the land. Typically this means creating at least two percent (2%) slopes for cool season grasses and three percent (3%) slopes for warm season types. As a rule of thumb, surface water should run more than 50 yards across active play areas before dumping into a catch basin, swale or other outlet or storage facility. In fact it has been estimated that as much as 80% of earthmoving and shaping that is done on Hurdzan/Fry courses is only to create improved drainage, for the better drained the golf course is, the healthier are the grasses and this reduces the requirement for inputs.
Clearing plans or removal of excess vegetation should also be environmentally driven. Purging a site of exotic, foreign or unnatural vegetation is an important step. Such plants are generally landscape plants gone wild such as honeysuckle, in the north, Brazilian pepper in the south, and phragmite everywhere. Conservation plants can go rogue such as kudzu, purple loostrife, and multifolaria rose, which are very invasive. When native vegetation must be removed, it is intuitive that efforts should be made to protect any endangered species or plant communities, as well as specimen or unique vegetation. Similarly if dead or decaying trees can be safely left in out of play areas, this adds to the diversity of the ecosystem by encouraging a web of life that ranges from country nesting birds to lowly but equally important soil organisms. But to grow healthy turfgrass requires abundant sunlight and good air movement so the clearing plan should generously provide for both.
When designing the individual golf features such as tees, greens and bunkers, an environmental golf course designer will remember and respect the old adage “form follows function.” When form definition such as size, slope, shape, depth or height as example, are not carefully thought out both above and below ground, failures can occur. We have all seen the large putting green that did not have adequate cupset space, or the tee too flat to drain, or bunkers that unnecessarily were subjected to excess drainage water. This extends to improper root zone mediums, sloppy tile installation, or poor irrigation design. The list of how to properly fit forms to functions is a learned skill that comes with education, experience and a clear understanding of how things work. For instance I personally have no problem designing a golf course with fifteen USGA recommended construction method greens and three California style construction – simply because each was the correct method for the microclimate in which it was placed. The result would be a vastly superior and environmentally correct golf course than if all others were built the same way. Mastering ones craft allows freethinking and application of the concept “form follows function.”
Other decisions made during the design and construction phase to produce a more environmentally correct golf course include soil amendments, genetically improved turfgrass cultivars, water saving irrigation designs and products, incorporation of recycled materials, planting areas for zonal maintenance and native grass or wildflower areas. Each of these supports the goals of reduced applications of water, fertilizer and pesticide.
Concurrent to golf course planning there should also be habitat planning in conjunction with environmental experts in disciplines related to wildlife management. The goal is to encourage the widest and most stable diversity of species possible that can live in harmony with the golf course environment and associated maintenance practices. Outside of grizzly bears almost all other critters seem to be satisfied with a properly designed, built and maintained golf course integrated into equally well thought out habitat areas. For instance The River Course at Keystone Resort in Colorado was designed to allow for elk migration in the winter from one territorial area to another. At Westwood Plateau in Vancouver, B.C. golf holes were placed to preserve an ancient and still active bear trail that bears use to go from their mountain home to a nearby trout/salmon stream and feeding area. At a more generic level, water storage pond bottoms are designed and built as certain kinds of fish habitat as well as a more generalized but complex aquatic ecosystem. Things as simple as bird boxes are a step in the right direction, but a fairly elaborate and complete restoration of quail or wild turkey habitat is better – for animals and golfers. The best golf is experienced in the most natural environments.
Once the golf course is complete it takes a very special golf course superintendent to serve what can become two masters – the golfers and the environment. Without education about the benefits and requirements of a healthy economy, golfers tend to focus on the greenest of the grass, the fastness of the greens, and wall-to-wall manicuring. It is difficult for some North American golfers to balance the value in seeing butterflies and unusual birds against the potential of lost golf balls in their habitat. This attitude is changing slowly but there is a long, long way to go before golfers demand environmentally correct golf courses. Environmentalists, both golfers and non-golfers alike, should be thanked for their persistence in trying to make North American golf courses increasingly better neighbors to the environment. Great strides have been made, but even more can be learned and done to make golf courses the BEST
environments in any given area.
Originally posted by MichaelHurdzan
on 15 Mar 2010.
All contributors: MichaelHurdzan
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