March 23, 2008

The Advocate: Ronald G. Dodson

How Green Is Golf?

Ronald G. Dodson has been president of Audubon International (auduboninternational.org) since he founded it in 1987. The organization has nothing to do with birds, nor the prestigious National Audubon Society, which Dodson worked for in the 1980s as a regional vice president. (Dodson now has harsh words for his former employer -- as you will see, his criticisms are strenuously denied by National Audubon.) Dodson says that roughly 75 percent of Audubon International's work is golf-related: It's best known for its Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program, which certifies golf courses for their eco-friendly practices, and its more involved Audubon Signature Program for new developments. Dodson, a former schoolteacher, has worked in the environmental field for more than 30 years. (He has also, according to his website's bio, amassed "a huge number of frequent-flier miles" -- an odd boast for the leader of an environmental organization.) A former scratch golfer who earned a golf scholarship to Oakland City University in Indiana, Dodson now plays to a 10-handicap.

The first meeting with Dodson, at the organization's headquarters in upstate New York, had to be canceled because of a snowstorm. The rescheduled meeting had to be canceled, too, because Dodson, 59, went for a physical and was told he had to have a quadruple-bypass operation. Eventually, six weeks later, the interview was conducted over the phone, with Dodson speaking from his home in Albany, N.Y., where he was recuperating from the operation.

Golf Digest: So how are you feeling?

Ronald Dodson: I'm great. I felt great before the operation, and I feel great now. Everything's fine.

That's good. OK, let's talk about Audubon International. What do clubs have to do to get certified? What is the process?

When a golf course joins our program, if it starts the certification process, it usually takes two to three years for it to go through all the paperwork, get everything in place and get to the final audit. Essentially there are six categories that we try to focus people's attention on. It starts with the course developing an environmental plan, and the first step of that process is doing an inventory -- what kind of golf course is it, how many acres of turf, what kind of turf, water features and so on. The other categories are water conservation; water quality management; wildlife and habitat enhancement; chemical use, reduction and safety; outreach and education. Golf courses can get certificates for each of those six categories, and then they can become a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. They have to get recertified every two years.

How much does it cost?

It's $200 per year for a course in the U.S. and $250 for anywhere else in the world to join the program. There's no additional cost for getting certified. We don't want people to use money as an excuse not to do this. [Note: The Audubon Signature Program, where the organization gets heavily involved in the planning and development of new golf-course projects, is more expensive, with fees starting at $9,500.]

Would Augusta National pass the test?

Well, I don't know. I've never been there, and I'd like to go sometime. From what I know about Augusta National, it's really a television studio, not a golf course. It's open only about six months of the year. So I don't know that they're really doing that bad environmentally when you look at the course for a whole year.

How many have signed up to the Sanctuary Program?

We've got more than 2,300 courses in the program, and 755 of those are certified worldwide -- 622 in the U.S. The vast majority of the members that we have join the program and either start the certification process and then stop or just never start. They pay their membership fee and they get our newsletters. Some of them we happen to know are doing really good things, but they just don't fill out all the paperwork and documentation that you need to do to get certified.

Are you disappointed in those numbers?

Well you know, I asked the USGA guys several years ago how they felt we were doing since they've always been a sponsor of our program; they support what we do. And they kind of said, no, you know, we think you're doing pretty well. They thought that we were where we ought to be. Now, of course, we think we ought to have all the courses in America. We're certainly not satisfied. We'd like to have more.

Because part of your funding comes from the USGA and golf companies, there's a perception that you're largely just performing a PR function for the golf industry. How do you respond to that?

The USGA is the governing body of golf, and to have their support, to have them promoting the idea of golf courses getting involved and joining with us, is very important. We know -- at least we believe -- that our program is credible. We know that the EPA thinks it's credible -- they've given us awards and recognition for what we do. We're not ashamed of what we do. And if golf courses practice what we would like them to practice, and they get some good PR out of that, then that's great. We want to motivate other people. The PR part, I'm fine with that.

Your organization carries the name Audubon. [Note: John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist, naturalist, painter, was born in Haiti in 1785.] But it has nothing to do with the National Audubon Society, the environmental organization that has been around since 1905. Doesn't that mislead the public?

The public is confused over that whole movement anyway. You know, there are 550 Audubon Societies in the United States. They're all separate from one another; they all have their own boards and directors. [Note: National Audubon says that 491 of these Audubon organizations are in fact National Audubon Society chapters.] The history of the Audubon movement from the very beginning has always been separate local, state and regional groups. Our group was incorporated in 1987, but it was originally founded in 1897 as the Audubon Society of New York State. That's our real name. So we were created originally before National Audubon was. A lot of people think that the National Audubon Society is kind of the parent Audubon group, and everybody else is somehow subservient to them, but that's not true. National Audubon in the past has used that to belittle what we do and our approach. And the reason they do it is they have to raise about $40 million a year to keep their bureaucracy funded. We don't try to raise $40 million a year to keep a bureaucracy going. It basically comes down to that. It's money.

But they're not just a bureaucracy. They obviously do some good work as well.

Well, I think they used to, when I worked for them.

But not anymore?

They put out a magazine. They used to have one of the oldest and largest sanctuary systems in the world, but over the last several years they've given off their sanctuaries to a lot of the other Audubon groups. [Note: National Audubon says: "Since Mr. Dodson's departure in 1987, Audubon sanctuaries, centers or other conservation properties have increased from 87,900 acres in 70 different locations to 101,300 acres in 114 locations."] So in my opinion, mostly National Audubon takes credit for work that other Audubon groups are doing. And they put out a magazine.

But it is nevertheless the most well-known Audubon organization, right?

Yeah. They put a lot of their $40 million into PR.

How can there be 550 Audubon organizations? Is there no trademark protection of the Audubon name? Could anybody use that name?

Yeah. It's public domain. [Note: National Audubon disputes this.]

So I could set up the Audubon Pesticide Company, for example, if I wanted to. Oh, yeah. And there probably is one. I lived in Henderson, Ky., for several years before I moved up here, and there were I think 30 different companies named Audubon there. And Henderson is only a 20,000-person place. [Note: John James Audubon lived in Henderson during his 20s and 30s.] There was an Audubon Chrysler automobile dealership. There was a company there that made women's panties, pantyhose, Audubon Hosiery.

[Note: Philip Kavits, the National Audubon Society's vice president and chief communications & marketing officer, was given the opportunity to respond to what he called Dodson's "very misleading statements," which he said unfairly characterized National Audubon. He offered a statement about the work of National Audubon -- whose mission for more than a century has been "to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats" -- including many examples of recent achievements, and a rebuttal of Dodson's claims, point by point. Click here to read his response. Kavits added that a visit to the organization's website, audubon.org, "will give your readers a much more complete picture of our activities and successes."]

You often hear of ski resorts with their own wind turbines, solar panels that power the chairlifts, energy-efficient trail-grooming machines. The Aspen Skiing Company was the first resort of any kind to join the Chicago Climate Exchange [a leading carbon-trading organization -- chicagoclimatex.com]. Why do you never hear of these things in golf?

There are a lot of golf courses that are doing things with maintenance equipment, golf carts, energy efficiency. But for some reason they don't talk about it very much.

Are you aware of any golf courses that have their own wind turbine?

I don't know of any.

What about solar panels on the clubhouse roof?

Yep, I think there are several of them in the Southwest that have solar units on the roof, and they actually sell power back to the utility. [Note: Any golf courses with wind turbines or solar panels are invited to e-mail and tell us about it.] Maybe the ski-industry people have come together, and they're talking about things that they can do at their individual operations that collectively make a difference. I don't know that the golf-course industry has done that yet. The only way we're all going to make a difference, long term, is if this becomes part of the free enterprise system. So it's no longer some cute, nice thing to be environmentally friendly, or something that we do every once in a while. It becomes part of the way we do business. The golf-course industry has an opportunity to be the leader. If they do it the right way, they could be motivators for people who build shopping malls and parking lots and subdivisions.