March 23, 2008

The Regulator: Robert Wood

How Green Is Golf?

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.

To most people, endangered species are things like snow leopards and elephants, but there are more than 1,000 endangered species in the U.S. alone.

That's right. People are not thinking about salamanders or vegetation in a wetland. They're critically important as a habitat. And they're critically important as a filter: We build all this infrastructure to keep water clean, and wetlands provide very much that same kind of cleansing capacity in a natural way. And they provide a buffering capacity for storm events. We saw this very much with the Katrina and Rita storms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Is there a figure for the size of America's wetlands? A lot of the wetlands have disappeared.

The first statistical wetlands status-and-trends report in 1983 estimated the rate of wetland loss from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s at 458,000 acres per year. Wetlands then were largely thought of as a hindrance to development. In the 1991 report, which covered the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, we were still losing wetlands, but the rate had declined to 290,000 acres a year. The third report, from '86 to '97, indicated that the rate of loss was down to 58,500 acres per year. Now the 2006 report, which covers 1998 to 2004, shows that the wetland area actually increased by an average of 32,000 acres per year. This was the first report to show that we were in a period of increasing wetlands. There was, however, some issue with this report over how wetlands were defined.

[Note: The report states that the total area of wetlands in the U.S. in 2004 was 107.7 million acres. Wood goes on to explain that the claim of wetlands growth has been contested. A New York Times story, for instance, explains that over the study period, 523,500 acres of true wetlands, swamps and tidal marshes were lost, but this was offset in the report by gains of 715,300 acres of ponds, including man-made ornamental ponds -- hardly a fair trade.]

To some golfers, wetlands and wild areas are just a nuisance, places where you're going to lose your ball. They'd rather see the golf course mowed from fence line to fence line. What do you say to them?

When you provide a bit of education, you can get a very different answer. You can say, for example, that not mowing certain areas is better for wildlife, better for water quality and allows native vegetation to thrive and maybe prevents an invasive species from moving in. It might change the look of the course a little bit and the way it plays a little bit, maybe not. I'm a golfer, and to me what's intrinsically attractive about the game is that you are essentially in a natural setting. And it's the restrictions and unique features of that natural setting that make a particular course challenging, one that you like and remember and want to go back to. That's been a design principle of golf courses from the beginning. It's part of the game.

The best golf courses look as if they've emerged from the landscape rather than having been imposed upon it, like those wall-to-wall bright-green courses in the middle of the desert.

Exactly. You go to the southern Arizona desert -- which is truly a unique landscape; there's nothing else like it on earth -- and I've seen courses there where they've tried to maintain much of that, and really work with it, and to me that's a far more interesting course. One of the influential landscape architects of the last century was Ian McHarg, who was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He came out with a book in 1969 called Design with Nature. The audience was really urban planners and landscape architects, but it applies to golf courses, too. It's the tradition of the game, and we're rediscovering that tradition.