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How golf is doing more to protect wildlife than ever before

December 10, 2021

Jim Pavonetti is expecting a visitor. This guest hasn’t booked a tee time, but for the past five years, around May 31, he has materialized—even accounting for leap year. Pavonetti checks his desk calendar: May 31. Sure enough the black-crowned night heron shows up.

Pavonetti is the superintendent at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., about 30 miles north of New York City. The only sounds of life here are natural ones: cicadas humming, dragonflies whizzing, bees buzzing, ducks splashing. Tucked away along the state’s border, the 18-hole course’s enchanted flowering bushes appear animated by an opera of duskywing butterflies and beetles. A glossy black lake completes the fairytale setting. Pavonetti estimates Fairview has 86 wildlife species, not to mention an array of flora. “You can walk over to some of our viburnums when they’re blooming, and the whole bush is buzzing,” he says. “There’s a honeybee in every flower.” But 14 years ago, you would have found it difficult to spot a lone mallard. What changed?

Sixteen-hundred miles away in Houston, there used to be a 178-acre, 18-hole public course known as Clear Lake. To retain water during hurricanes like Harvey in 2017, the city decided the land would better serve as a flood plain. The holes have been converted into hiking trails and ponds that hold hundreds of millions of gallons of water. A few holes are submerged in a stormwater retention pool. In an aerial view, you can just make out the contours and imagine where a flagstick would have stood. After the 2008 recession, it seemed many courses would go the way of Clear Lake. Audubon magazine published an article entitled, “Bye-bye Golf Courses, Hello Nature Preserves.” Naturalists delighted. But this ignored a fundamental aspect of the golf course: It is predicated on nature.

Back riding with Pavonetti is like being on a safari. His open-top utility vehicle roars and dips as we take on the hills and turns of the course, habitat unfurling. Exposed stone dotted with wildflowers could place us in the Rockies. Woodsy coves remind me of Appalachia. Pavonetti knows this place intimately. He can tell you the origin of every plant and management practice. He can name the 52 tree species by their taxonomic order, though flowers are a different story (those are “yellow guys” and “blue guys”). He has been groundskeeping since his first summer gig as a teenager at a course in Eastchester, N.Y., but he’s happily still learning all the butterflies, bushes, birds and bugs. It’s a long process, as there are a lot of species. But constant education, as many supers will tell you, is one of the joys—and necessities—of the job. This is Pavonetti’s 14th year at Fairview. Tending the course with wildlife in mind is kind of his “thing,” and now it has become Fairview’s thing.

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FLOWER POWER Pollinator gardens on the “edges” of golf courses can provide crucial habitat for insects like the monarch butterfly. Photographs by Alan P. Pittman.

Our first stop is a pollinator garden behind the second tee box, an example of a popular move among environmentally conscious supers: Converting the estimated 70 percent of land that goes unplayed into native plant enclosures. On each side is a nesting box, one with a family of eastern bluebirds and one with barn swallows. Even though they are “supposed to be enemies,” under Pavonetti’s watch, they are neighbors. Bordering the garden, Pavonetti has replaced turf with a bluegrass meadow, the perfect hideout for mammals like rabbits, deer, coyotes and foxes.

A lapis swallowtail pauses, just as we do, on the path ahead. I’ve been told that a butterfly passing your cart is an auspicious sign on a golf course. A friendly foursome nearby says hello before teeing off. Excitedly, they start listing off the creatures I might see. “There’s a coyote who hangs around 8 ... a wild turkey with her young ... and don’t forget the heron on No. 5 ... ”

Pavonetti nods along. They’re leaving out one curious species we are sure to encounter, he says to me with a smile: “the wild golfers.”

“Everyone thinks golf is bad for wildlife,” says Tim Powers, the superintendent at Poplar Creek Golf Course in San Mateo, Calif. “But I’ve got birds all over the place.”

In the past century, before the days of OSHA, to maintain manicured, wall-to-wall greens, landtenders used a harrowing amount of chemicals. One source remembers the days of willy-nilly spraying. Every morning, he would go around and pick up dead birds that had fallen from the trees. Now, the rules have changed. But more than that, we better understand the consequences of our actions and the organisms with which we coexist. “Environmental stewardship is the middle name of most superintendents,” says Gary Ingram, a super at Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland, Calif. “It’s not that we try to take over for Mother Nature; it’s that we cohabitate and try to make it better.”

Courses can be more environmentally productive than they often get credit for. According to academic studies, stormwater that enters a golf course with wetlands leaves cleaner than when it entered. Naturalists will tell you that wildlife thrives on “edges.” Thanks to the contours of holes, golf courses are a circus of perimeters, many with habitat diversity found in the water hazards, rough or surrounding woodland. As Ingram says, for many communities, golf courses are the only remaining examples of greenery. But there is room for improvement.

“If it were up to the superintendents, [courses] wouldn’t be quite as green or as lush,” says Michael Hurdzan, the renowned course architect and environmentalist. If it were up to groundskeepers, they would be much more natural. Many courses, however, have found ways to be both.

One of our missions this day in Greenwich is to find a caterpillar—not just any old Lepidoptera, but a monarch pupa. The critters, which are under review for endangered status as their population has declined 90 percent since the turn of the century, like to hide on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Monarchs are particular—they will lay their eggs only on this type of plant, a tall scrawny-looking perennial whose name does it justice. Pavonetti warns me to hold on; he might stop suddenly if he thinks he spots one. He has been known to do so and even gets teased for his frantic, daily checking of the underbellies of his milkweed, which he has scattered in clusters across his property, hoping the butterflies will “skip” across them as they complete their seasonal migration to and from the mountains of Mexico.

The myth is that maintaining a sustainable golf course requires exorbitant amounts of money and resources. Although Fairview certainly benefits from a healthy cash flow and a patronage passionate about Pavonetti’s endeavors, many of the steps he has taken are inexpensive and even end up saving money. Some efforts are entirely free, like the milkweed, for example. A program called Monarchs in the Rough has gifted Pavonetti—and hundreds of other supers across the country—milkweed seed to create landing pads for butterflies losing precious habitat. This anecdote serves as an example of one lesson from fauna-fanatic supers: With a few key plantings or bird boxes, courses can become refuges for creatures looking for permanent homes (or short-term rentals).

The business of groundskeeping isn’t always as glamorous as the peridot hydrangeas and sapphire echinaceas winking from the pollinator gardens of Fairview might suggest. Across the country, on the San Francisco Bay, Ingram runs a course nestled between a major international airport and a dump site, posing several challenges. For one thing, because birds are a risk to planes, Ingram cannot technically “promote” airborne wildlife. Instead, he finds creative ways—from beekeeping and pollinator gardens to recruiting a herd of hungry goats to serve as natural weedkillers—to safely ensure the protection of wildlife. As for the second obstacle, well, where there’s trash, there are seagulls, squabbles of them, in fact. The birds have been known to swoop onto a green and take off with a golf ball, presumably believing it’s food. “I think it’s so funny,” Ingram says. “It’s probably not funny for [the players]. It’s not a big deal. Get another ball.”

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THE FRUIT IT BEARS It’s the small things, like this apple orchard at Fairview in Greenwich, that remind golfers they’re coexisting with nature.

“Coexist” is the operative word Ingram uses when describing the relationships among humans, nature and golf. As much as we think we can control the macrocosm, we’re just headless chickens—or golf-ball-thrifting gulls. Ingram participates in as many wildlife initiatives as he can. Like many supers, he partners with the local Audubon society. The group has an annual Christmas Bird Count to see how many species they can spot. Last year, the birders traipsed all over the East Bay in search of a blue-winged teal duck. Turns out the only one to be found was under Ingram’s purview. “If you only find them on the golf course,” Ingram says, “you know something’s going right.” In addition to ducks, Metropolitan Golf Links has kites, kestrels, hawks and a river otter. Ingram partners with a zoo to track animals for research purposes. The slippery river otter had been on their radar for a few months. They finally spotted it in their lake this year. And, yeah, it’s a “huge deal.”

“When I leave this world, I want it to be as good if not better than when I got here,” Ingram says. “I don’t want to be one of the people that destroyed it for next generations. I really do think a lot of superintendents do that.”

Back at Fairview, we’re coming up on hole No. 5, a long fairway encompassing a variety of habitats from boulders to wetland. It’s Pavonetti’s favorite hole. “Half the time, your cellphone doesn’t work back here,” he says. “I joke that you could basically be in northern Maine.” Colloquially, No. 5 is known as the Wildlife Highway. We count three green herons skirting across the lake and a great blue heron. Pavonetti points out a long log on the other side of the water with dozens of sunbathing turtles. Fairview has box, snapping and painted varieties, as well as the elusive red-eared turtle. There are six species of frog and schools of fish (bluegills, pumpkinseeds, large-mouth bass, carp, bullfrog catfish and shiners). He says there are snakes, too. “I hate snakes. I’m sure they’re beneficial, but I stay clear of them.” As for what else goes on below the pond’s surface, one can only imagine. Every Friday, Pavonetti dyes the lake black. This, coupled with an ancient management technique involving barley straw, which releases natural algae-inhibitors during decomposition, ensures the lake’s health. Pavonetti has gone the entire year without applying chemicals to the lake. That’s $16,000 to $25,000 in savings, plus an invaluable bonus for nature. “I buy a couple bails of barley straw and a couple of cases of black dye for a few thousand dollars, and I’m done,” he says.

“Wildlife Highway” is Fairview vernacular, but it reflects a technical term: wildlife corridor. Although the supers do what they can to take a course with its specific quirks and make it more hospitable to flora and fauna, architect Hurdzan designs courses to be wildlife-friendly from the start. He and his team do this in a variety of ways. First, they survey the land, often on foot, conducting a hand-count of the plants and animals. They rely on archival documents as well—maps, blueprints, water tests—and even aerial footage. Essentially, he tells me, it’s the same technology that could be used to hunt for Bigfoot: drones, infrared—the whole shebang.

Using this data, two things can happen. First, Hurdzan can take desolate, overworked land and revamp it into a course-cum-oasis. Alternatively, he can assess land already being used by wildlife and design a course that ensures the organisms go relatively undisturbed and even protected. First scenario is Desert Willow Golf Resort, a 400-acre 36-hole facility in Palm Desert, Calif.

“There was nothing but mesquite, a few rabbits, few snakes,” he says. “Nothing appreciable because nothing wanted to live there.” Once his firm revegetated the area, it burst alive with hummingbirds, rabbits, coyotes and reptiles, none of which could have survived before. “By adding a golf course,” he says, “we made it extraordinarily rich.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Hurdzan cites a course in Colorado. Through the initial site analysis, his team discovered the land was part of an ancient elk migration path—an example of a wildlife corridor. To endure the winter, the elk journey from a mountain range on one end of the property to peaks on the facing side. The resulting design placed the practice range along the corridor so the elk could pass freely—to no harm of the course, animals or players.

“We had to respect that elk corridor,” he says. “The elk have been using it for thousands of years, and if someone is foolish enough to build something there, they’re not going to go around it; they’re going to go right through it.”

“How many people get to go out in the morning, watch the sun come up and see a variety of mammals, birds, snakes, beautiful trees and beautiful water?” asks Timothy Hiers, the super at the Dye Course at White Oak in Yulee, Fla. “That’s one of the reasons there’s a love for this business.” Hiers has become part of superintendent lore involving insects and beer—gallons upon gallons of beer. Here’s his tale of the drunk flower grub beetle.

A grub is like a “worm on steroids,” Hiers says, that grows into a hairy beetle. They feed on the roots of plants, and, at the course he was with at the time, they had taken over the property. Possums, raccoons and foxes were tearing up the course foraging for some juicy grub. Looking for a non-toxic solution, he called an entomologist at the University of Florida. Here’s another lesson from the wildlife-friendly super’s playbook: Don’t go it alone. When in doubt, recruit the help of local students, researchers and professors. It builds community credibility and leads to crafty solutions to pesky problems, like this one.

The entomologist recommended breaking the reproduction cycle. “She said, ‘You get a gallon milk jug and cut out a small circle in the center, and at the top you put in beer and bananas. In the bottom you mix water with soap.’ Bananas attract male beetles. They would then drink the beer and drown in the soap and water. We killed as many as 400 male beetles a day out of each jug.”

That’s a classic example of a Best Management Practice (BMP). The concept isn’t new. But these environmentally conscious steps are gaining increased attention thanks to pressure from activists, enthusiasm from golfers and environmental awards from the likes of Golf Digest and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. The attention helps make environmentalism a profitable investment for courses, driving tourism from golfers and nongolfers alike.

“There are people who are environmental activists, but golf-course superintendents are active environmentalists,” Hiers says. “There’s a big difference. We know the soil, we know the water, we know the atmosphere, we know the wildlife. We don’t talk about it; we live it.”

After decades on the job, Pavonetti still gets excited about each new species that builds a home on his course. Every year, Fairview welcomes at least one new type of waterfowl. (The freshmen on campus this year are sleek divers, known as ringnecked ducks.) One time he saw a great horned owl take over a red-tailed hawk’s nest on No. 14. The mama raised two owlets in her borrowed digs. He thought it was a fluke, except the owl returned the next year. After a little research, he learned that the owls are known tenants and the hawks decent landlords. “Owls never build a nest,” he says. They’re nifty little moochers. That’s just their nature.

When someone approaches superintendent Paul L. Carter with an idea to foster wildlife, his answer is usually an automatic yes. In this case, it was a quail-restoration project. “One of our employees had the idea and grew the quails from chicks,” says Carter, who oversees The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, a Jack Nicklaus-designed public course in Tennessee under the jurisdiction of the state’s department of wildlife. “I don’t know if it made sense or not, but it was a great project to do.”

Carter spends half his time maintaining the course and the other half managing wildlife projects. He has 42 bluebird boxes, eight turkey feeders, seven mallard nesting tubes, 11 wood duck houses and the quails, of course, even if Carter has yet to spot one. “We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we’re provided,” he says, “and provide an escape for golfers.”

When Carter started investing in wildlife more than a decade ago, his biggest challenge was community acceptance. Today, the memory is nearly laughable. One of the ingenious ways Carter won over the hearts of the community was an eagle cam. In December 2010, a pair of eagles, Elliot and Eloise, built a nest on the course. This year, Bear Trace raised its 17th and 18th eaglets. (Eloise has since passed away, but Elliot has a new mate, Athena. This is Athena’s third season.) Golfers and nongolfers tune in. Carter even hosts community days in which anyone can tour the grounds and see the eagles. It’s a great way to inform the public about wildlife—and golf. “We consider all our residents here,” Carter says. “We’re just coming out to play a sport and do a job. But they live here.”

Volunteers help manage the bluebird boxes; they even collect data for NestWatch, a Cornell-run nationwide program that recruits citizen ornithologists to monitor nests, tracking reproduction patterns. Bear Trace also hosts educational programming aimed at providing K-12 students with a STEM-based, interactive learning experience. Kids get to stick their hands into dirt and admire bugs up close. They also learn “golf-course math,” calculating the amount of fertilizer necessary to maintain the greens. It’s great for climate change advocacy, but it’s also great for golf. For many of these children, this is a first—and rare—introduction to the world of clubs and fairways. He’s inspiring future environmentalists—and future golfers. But it often ends up being the parents who leave the most wide-eyed.

One of Carter’s more memorable experiences with wildlife involves an eaglet with a name that sounds more like something out of Star Wars: HB5. “In 2013, HB5 fell out of the tree or fledged too early and fell to the ground,” he says. The pup injured its wing. The park manager came down, captured it and took it to the nearby university’s vet school. They cleaned its scratches. “If it had been another 24 hours, it would’ve died.” After a rehabilitation stint at Dollywood’s American Eagle Foundation, HB5 returned to Bear Trace.

“To see that eaglet be released back into the wild and fly up to its tree, for HB6 to come join it, then later for Elliot and Eloise to come join it, that was the greatest day I’ve ever had on a golf course,” he says. “That’s working out in the wildlife.”

Some of these changes are brought on by passion or ethos—from supers, board members or players—and others are dictated by nature. Such is the case in drought-stricken California. Wayne Mills manages La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, where cutting down on water is not only the right thing to do but is state-mandated. When Mills got started in 2016, he was looking to take advantage of incentives the government was offering to properties that reduced water usage. Mills’ first thought was increasing the course’s native populations, which are predisposed to fare better in the arid climate and retain water more efficiently. One day, some college researchers were studying a creek nearby. He asked them to come take a look around the grounds. “I realized I needed some help,” he says. They introduced him to a local biologist, who, with her husband, specializes in mitigation. Together, they decided to restore the native oak communities using the surrounding hills as a guide. To do this, they hiked the nearby mountains to propagate the exact genetic varieties local to Santa Barbara.

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LOVE BLOOMS When groundkeepers, golfers and neighbors buy into the idea of stewardship, it inspires everyone to do more.

Mills still plants some non-native species for the “show factor.” Members have affectionately nicknamed the annual crescendo of red flax, purple lupines and white sage the “super bloom.” Mills orchestrates the plantings to flower at different times, attracting pollinators from hummingbirds to sweat bees and mimicking the drama of changing seasons, a rarity in the Golden State. Mills describes it as a “snowball effect.” If you give a course a flowering garden, you’ll end up with aphids seeking nectar. Then the birds arrive to munch on the insects. Mills and his team are converting another 30,000 square feet to meadow. It’s the last of the “easy pickings.” After that, they will chase another creative, water-cutting, wildlife-friendly solution—still to be discovered.

The rain that has held off all morning threatens. Pavonetti and I are coming to the end of our tour. We pass through an orchard on the property’s edge, a remnant from the land’s previous owners. The grove is so ancient that one tree reliably falls each year. Pavonetti plants a new seed in its place so that golfers and pollinators for decades to come can munch on the fruit. We coast under the orchard’s canopy, which is dripping with apples.

Members are free to harvest as they play. It’s the small things, Pavonetti says, that remind golfers they’re coexisting with nature. But steps like this—as every super I talked to agreed—build credibility. When golfers buy into stewardship, everyone, from the players to the groundskeeper to the neighbors, feels a sense of ownership over the wildlife and the initiatives to foster it. That inspires everyone to do more, and the creativity and passion that blossoms as a result is palpable. Just as nature is fundamental to golf, so too is community. “A few people go out to only play golf,” Ingram says. “But I think the majority go for a walk with Mother Nature and take their golf clubs.”

We never did find a monarch, but so it goes with wildlife. The inventory of species we did see is too long to tally. Plus, I have a scribbled list of bug and flower descriptions (“perky purple tube flowers”). Pavonetti might not know the proper names of every bud, but he always knows the time. “It’s amazing how repetitive a lot of it is,” he says. “There’s an osprey that comes every year around October 1. I’ll think, Aw, you know, it’s October 1, and then, as I’m driving, I’ll be looking, and—wow!—there he is.”

Before I leave, I ask Pavonetti if he’ll be sad to see his couch-surfing night heron, who usually sticks around only for a few weeks, fly onward.

“Not really,” he says, “I know he’s coming back next year.”

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9 STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW

(1) The most common advice from supers? Start small. Focus on actions you can take now rather than renovating your entire course or yard. This can be as simple as investing in a few bird baths or taking another step on this list.

(2) Install bee, bat, butterfly or bird houses around the property to provide creatures with safe rest stops.

(3) Convert a patch of unplayed grass behind a tee box or in your side yard into meadow, which is better at sequestering carbon dioxide than grass and offers more protection and sustenance for wildlife.

(4) Plant a pollinator garden. Identify a plant or species you’re interested in and design a small garden around that.

(5) Stick to native plants, which are naturally predisposed to support wildlife and thrive in your climate and soil.

(6) When a tree needs to come down, rather than ditch it, leave the log to decay onsite. This creates lunch for countless insects. Birds nest in its cavities and raptors perch on it to hunt. Postmortem, the tree enjoys a second life as a buffet, commune and throne. Pile the limbs, creating a hideaway for smaller animals.

(7) Transform recyclable materials into educational signposts for community members. Use social media or the newspaper to promote environmental initiatives like composting and water-recycling programs.

(8) Become a citizen scientist. Participate in local species counts to track the health of neighboring wildlife.

(9) Limit the use of pesticides and herbicides. Embrace nature’s quirks! If a pest or weed gets out of hand, contact the Cooperative Extension System or the ecology department at a nearby university and ask for help finding creative, nontoxic management solutions. —E.F.