The Regulator: Robert Wood

How Green Is Golf?

May 2008

Since 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency ( has been responsible for the health of Americans and the land, air and waters that surround us, by developing and enforcing regulations, performing and funding research, and conducting education and other outreach programs. Among the agency's 17,000 employees is Robert Wood, 45, the deputy director of the Wetlands Division, the EPA's representative in the Golf & the Environment Initiative, and an 18-handicap golfer. We met in his office in the vast EPA building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. Above us, on the wall, was a photograph of the snowcapped peak of the Matterhorn, taken by Wood on a long-ago vacation, before he started his career at the EPA, before anyone had heard of global warming.

Golf Digest: The EPA's Wetlands Division -- can you explain what it does?
Robert Wood: We have a regulatory program that's co-administered with the Army Corps of Engineers, under the Clean Water Act. In essence, what it says is that if you're going to be pushing dirt around, doing excavation, or putting fill material into any water -- streams, ponds, rivers, wetlands, bays and so on -- you have to get a permit. We have regulations that require avoidance and minimization of impact to water. Where the impact can't be avoided, you still have a right to develop that piece of property through what is called compensatory mitigation: In simple terms, if you're going to eliminate an acre of wetlands, you'll have to create maybe two or three acres of new wetlands, depending on the circumstances. The overall goal under this regulatory program is to have no net loss of wetlands and aquatic resources in the U.S.

Suppose I'm an evil developer. I've got a piece of land and want to build a golf course on it, but there's a wetland area right in the middle. And I decide, you know what, it's my land, I'm going to fill it in. What happens next?
There are several avenues for enforcement. Typically the first line of inquiry is going to be at the local level -- the county or the city. Somebody might see that this has happened and call their local EPA. It would not be uncommon for an EPA inspector to go out and have a look and make a determination about whether to pursue a case. Then there's a series of steps that could result in civil penalties or criminal prosecution. It's not real common, but it does happen, and there have been a few examples where folks have done jail time.

So there have been cases of golf developers going to jail for this?
I've never heard of a golf developer doing jail time, but I have heard of land developers, housing developers, so it is possible. But it's not the norm, and not the goal. The system is not designed to throw people in jail, it's designed to achieve compliance.

Would the same thing apply to pesticide use? If I'm a superintendent under a lot of pressure, and my golf course has got some insect problem, and I decide to use more pesticide than what is allowed, or I get some stronger stuff from the farmer down the road, who's to know?
Undoubtedly that happens from time to time. One obvious way that's going to be discovered is when something bad happens. A worker health-and-safety issue emerges, or something happens to a local waterway.

Three-headed frogs start appearing.
Right. Or there might be somebody who is paying attention and sees that a practice that's not permissible is going on. There might be a referral from somebody observing it. But the EPA's pesticide program is not my area.

OK, back to the wetlands. Why does it matter? Why shouldn't I be able to fill in the wetland on my golf-course project?
Wetlands are a vital part of any aquatic ecosystem. They provide habitat to a wide range of wildlife from fish, shellfish, all the way down to insect communities. Wetlands are the unique habitat for something like 30 percent of all endangered species, and 50 percent of endangered species spend at least part of their life cycle in wetlands. They're very ecologically rich.

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