March 23, 2008

The Environmentalist: Brent Blackwelder

How Green Is Golf?

In 1970, Brent Blackwelder started doing volunteer work for the U.S. branch of Friends of the Earth, which describes itself as the world's largest grassroots environmental network (foe.org). Now president of the organization, Blackwelder, 65, is one of America's most prominent environmental advocates and has testified before Congress on environmental issues more than 100 times. He has also been a golfer for more than half a century -- and used to be the proud owner of a 2-handicap. "Now it's more like 5 or 6," says the former golf team member of Duke University (the start of an academic journey in which Blackwelder earned a master's in mathematics from Yale and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Maryland). "I play nine holes probably twice a week in the summer, except when I'm on vacation. Then I'll play most of the time." We met at the Friends of the Earth headquarters in the nation's capital, not far from Dupont Circle. Blackwelder's sixth-floor office afforded a terrific view of the city. Snow was falling. After the interview, he headed to Capitol Hill to do what he does best: "an afternoon of hardball lobbying."

Golf Digest: Is golf a friend or a foe of the earth?

Brent Blackwelder: I've been asked whether, in my position, I should even play golf. My brother said to me, "Isn't environmentally sound golf an oxymoron?" And I said, "Well, it doesn't have to be." There have been some courses that have done some very good things, and there have been other courses that have caused some fairly serious environmental problems: contaminating water, ruining pristine streams, destroying habitats, producing landslides. There are some really bad examples. The nature of golf courses today is that too often you're playing the game on a chemical stew. The Golf & the Environment Initiative established very good principles to manage golf courses in as environmentally sound a manner as possible, covering things like where golf courses should and shouldn't be located, habitat creation, pesticides, water and energy use. Where we have not done a good job is in the outreach, in getting these principles used by the 16,000 golf courses in the United States. We haven't been able to instill an ethic of all golf courses looking at their daily management practices and trying to be compliant with good standards. I've been to a resort where they were spraying in high winds. You could actually smell it. That's violating all principles of good application. I've seen courses spraying when young children are present. Things like that should not happen. So overall, it's an uneven situation.

Let's talk about some of those principles. What land should be used for golf courses, and what shouldn't?

There are certain places where you don't want golf courses. I fought to keep a course off of the Crystal River in Northern Michigan, where we taught our kids to canoe, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A prime, sensitive area with pristine water, very rare plants and so forth -- a golf course would be compromising the environmental integrity of that land. We were successful in keeping that one away. On the other hand, I grew up playing a course that was reseeded over farm fields and has very little chemical usage, Silver Lake Country Club in western New York state. I still play it when I'm there every summer. Any conversion of farmland to a golf course does not present very many problems. In fact, you might even be able to restore the land to some degree. Also, golf courses restoring quarries or mines or other degraded land. But if you're going into a forest and cutting down trees to put in a golf course, losing biological diversity, reducing the species that are present, and compromising the water quality, that's at the other end of the spectrum.

How about habitat creation -- what can golf courses do?

Part of the appeal of golf is, you're getting out with the elements, in nature. The more non-use portions of the golf course can be returned to native species, the better it is. You don't want a lot of ornamentals. If you don't have the right native shrubs, you won't get the insects, butterflies and different kinds of birds that you want. About 6,000 of the 9,000 bird species on earth are in decline. That's not good news. It's very serious. There are possibilities on every course to alter that. Take a look at how Augusta does the banks of its creeks. It's not natural to grow grass right down a bank and into a stream. I'd prefer to see native vegetation, aquatic plants, growing along those banks. It's much more attractive. One of the worst things you see at some courses is an artificially dug pond with stone work all around the edge of it like a gothic cathedral. Then you have golf balls bouncing off it, and it starts getting much too much like a miniature golf course rather than being out with the elements.

Energy use?

Golf is going to require some energy use, but there are energy-efficient ways of doing things. I've talked with Kenwood Golf and Country Club here in Bethesda [Md.] about using solar panels. We've potentially got so much solar and wind power. We've got these vast outdoor parking lots in this country, like at the Pentagon here in D.C., or Dulles Airport. If you put solar collectors over these outdoor parking lots -- up on pedestals so that they'd shield the cars from the heat that builds up during the day -- you'd be generating fantastic amounts of electricity. If you did all those outdoor parking lots, you'd generate more electricity than the U.S. uses. It's a no-brainer to do it. The problem is that fossil fuels are heavily subsidized, and what we pay for them does not reflect their true cost, or their external costs on society. That's not in accordance with the free-market system. When you externalize your cost onto the rest of society, that's cheating. But that's exactly how we've allowed it to proceed.

Pesticides?

When I play golf, I'm trying to get a healthy walk in a natural setting. Too many times you find you're walking right in the areas where they've sprayed. And you're like, "Whoa, what am I doing walking here?" I'd rather be doing something else than following a truck that's spreading chemicals everywhere, especially when the guy driving the truck has got the protective suit on and is using a respirator. One of the serious concerns with pesticides is that, whereas, say, an adult male with a large body weight might not be that susceptible, for youths or women of childbearing age, exposure to a chemical in even a very small amount at the wrong time can do awful things. We're just learning about this. There are only two cancers that are dropping in age-adjusted incidence: lung cancer in men, for the obvious reason that men aren't smoking as much, and stomach cancer; it's not clear why. A lot of the others -- prostate cancer, breast cancer, childhood cancer -- are very much on the increase. The survival rates are better, but the incidence is growing. We should be going after prevention, because if we just go after cures, we're going to lose the ballgame in the long run.

Is it realistic to think that golf courses could ever stop using pesticides?

What is realistic is all golf courses using the principles of Integrated Pest Management, which is typical in agriculture. There's no doubt that that's the first step. You don't automatically spray everything as soon as there's any problem. You try to identify the problem and understand the reasons for it and use the pesticide only sparingly, and as a last resort. From that, some courses might start moving toward being more organic. It happened in agriculture. People said, "Oh, you can't grow organic food." But now we have a growing organic farming movement. Look at how whole-foods grocery stores and local farm markets are just skyrocketing in popularity.

What about genetically engineered grasses? A lot of people in the golf industry say a "Roundup Ready" grass should be approved because it would allow superintendents to spray less often, and with just Roundup, which they say is a benign product. What's your view?

It's totally the wrong way of thinking about it. I think it's fine to do hybridizations -- selective breeding of different grasses. That has served humanity well for 10,000 years. But when you're doing genetic engineering, you're doing stuff that doesn't occur in nature, cannot occur in nature. You're putting animal genes in plants, plant genes in animals, genes from one species into another. And when you do that, strange things can begin to happen. It's one thing to look at this stuff in closed labs, but once it's out in nature, you've got something that's live, it's breeding, it's multiplying, it's replicating. It's potentially a biological pollution that you've put out into the world. This technology is powerful. We're pretending we know what we're doing, but we are at a stage of incredible ignorance. With genetic engineering, you're putting something really wild into the equation, and you'd better be ready for some big surprises. And we're getting enough environmental surprises today with things like climate change.

The other point I'd make is that the big selling point for genetically engineered plants in agriculture -- which were approved and are in widespread use -- was that they'd need less herbicide use. That's not been the case. They also said there'd be increased yields. That's not been the case, either. It's terrible -- the majority of soybeans now are genetically engineered, as are vast acreages of corn, and there's no monitoring of it. And there's no way to know if we've eaten genetically engineered food today, because there are no labels on anything that we've eaten.

But for genetically engineered golf-course grasses, what is the worst that could happen if it were approved? What are the dangers?

One of the problems is that some genetically engineered grasses are getting into the national forests, and the U.S. Forest Service cannot get rid of them. Try to get rid of some invasive species, like garlic mustard, that have come into our forests from Europe. It's spreading like wildfire. Or look at the American chestnut. It was the most important timber species east of the Mississippi -- great, gigantic trees, durable lumber, produced more nuts than anything else. A very valuable wildlife tree. Well, 100 years ago, the Department of Agriculture thought, Wouldn't it be nice to bring the Asian chestnut into the United States? And the American chestnut disappeared like that. It succumbed to a blight, an airborne fungus, from the Asian chestnut. There are no native American chestnuts now that can do anything other than grow up 15 feet and die. And we have no answer to it. And I'm just saying, you think that's bad? What happens with a plant that's got animal genes stuck into it? What happens to the things that eat that plant? Who knows? And what does that do to the rest of the food chain? It's hard for us to even conceive of what the effects might be.

You've been an environmentalist for almost 40 years. Have you seen an increase in awareness and concern among the American public in that time?

There's tremendous awareness now. Probably a thousand-fold increase in awareness of an issue like global warming, of how our use of fossil fuels affects every nook and cranny on Planet Earth. Now most people are very much pro-environment, and they just cannot believe that politicians aren't doing all they can to protect it. But the truth is, they're not.

Since 1970, when I started as a volunteer for Friends of the Earth, I've seen Republicans and Democrats come and go, from when Nixon was president to George Bush Jr. We're a bipartisan organization. But I would say that George Bush Jr. is the most anti-environmental president we've ever had in that time. Nixon, in contrast, appointed people to environmental agencies who really cared about what they were doing. Under his regime, major laws like the amendment to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, were signed into law. There was a much more bipartisan approach. Whereas Bush Jr. has failed to enforce basic pollution laws, and he's tried to prevent states that wanted to do more from doing so. He's even gone against standards that would make our use of energy more efficient, which is very surprising. At the environmental agencies, he's appointed some people into positions of authority who don't even believe in the constitutionality of environmental laws. Public lands have been devastated by oil and gas leasing. Some of the worst coal mining -- mountaintop mining -- has continued. The EPA has failed. Again and again, the EPA has to be ordered by the court to comply with the law. A big failure. The United States, by the way, used to be the world leader in environmental quality, with those pioneering acts during the Nixon administration. Other nations looked up to us at that time. And now we've gone from being the environmental leader to a country that's despised. Other countries look at the United States as arrogant, the biggest greenhouse gas polluter, and disdainful of the impact of that pollution on other people worldwide.

The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but produces 25 percent of C02 greenhouse gas emissions. And it's one of the few countries not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol [to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change].

Right. Now that Australia has signed it, we're really out there like a sore thumb. It's tragic to see that leadership we once had just be turned on its end. Now it's not leadership, it's like an anchor slowing down the progress of the rest of the world, which is trying to move toward clean energy. The oil, coal and gas guys are running this administration.

Final question: What would golf be like in a perfect world?

You'd be playing on an organic course. The maintenance equipment would be charged by solar power. Recycled water would be used for irrigation, and used efficiently and sparingly. There'd be a great variety of wildlife habitats. This idea that you've got to make everything look like a miniature golf course with a green carpet is crazy. It's the same problem that we see with these lawn fetishes -- all the water and chemicals and energy that are used for a lawn that just sits there. So let's get back to the rugged qualities of the game. People ought to read the history of golf.

We've not been very good stewards of the earth as a species. We should be a blessing to the rest of life, not such a curse. The whole idea of living with and appreciating and understanding our surroundings is something we need more of. We have this incredible nature-deficit disorder worldwide. We're sitting all day in front of a computer in an office and not getting out for a walk in the woods. Golf is a great opportunity to be outdoors. It should be a fun, interesting, great walk out there; a healthful, salubrious experience.