The loblolly pine stands by itself, closest to the back-right corner of the 10th green on Bear Trace at Harrison Bay golf course in Harrison, Tenn. It's a magnificent specimen, at least 130 feet tall, its massive trunk rising at least 80 feet before extending any branches. It looks impossible to climb, yet in December 2011, park ranger Angelo Giansante, a former Army Ranger—from the looks of it, still Ranger-ready—looped a rope over a high branch and hoisted himself up the tree, nearly to the top, not once but several times, towing cameras, wires, cable and other paraphernalia.
His objective was to install two high-definition cameras, painted in camouflage, one above and one next to a massive nest established the previous winter by a pair of reclusive American bald eagles. The nest was four feet thick and eight feet wide, intricately constructed by the eagles from woven limbs and branches. It took Giansante, careful not to disturb the nest in any way, two days to complete the task. Back on the ground, he accepted the thanks of Paul L. Carter, the certified golf-course superintendent at Harrison Bay, who had conceived the idea and arranged funding through donations from Friends of Harrison Bay State Park, the United States Golf Association's Green Section and others.
Dec. 5, 2011, marked the debut of the Harrison Bay Eagle Cam (harrisonbayeagle cam.org
), a 24-hour Web feed that allows people to watch baby eagles hatch and grow. In its first year, more than 50,000 separate viewers from 37 countries logged on.
"One of the biggest stamps of approval of our environmental programs," says Carter, "is that these eagles would feel our golf course is a safe and suitable location to raise a family."
The eagle cam is not the only reason that Golf Digest is presenting its 2013 Green Star Award for Outstanding Environmental Practices to Bear Trace at Harrison Bay.
What caught our eye is the versatility of this state-park golf course on the Chickamauga Reservoir, about 20 miles northeast of Chattanooga. Besides being a broadcast studio and a playground for any golfer willing to pay its reasonable green fee of $48 weekdays, $58 weekends (including cart), it's a classroom, a laboratory, a forest preserve, a nature walk, a role model and a soapbox.
One might say it's also a phoenix risen from the ashes. Soon after the Jack Nicklaus Signature Design opened in May 1999, turf conditions were suspect. Fairways were Bermuda, hastily sprigged atop bluegrass that hadn't grown during construction. Greens were bent grass, not unusual for Chattanooga, but labor- and chemical-intensive and probably impractical on a public course. Surrounding both was rough of a bluegrass-fescue mix, not normally used in a hot, humid climate. The operator at the time (a management company that developed four Bear Trace courses before forfeiting its lease agreements and turning the courses over to the state) wanted weed-free, totally green perfection, so everything was heavily fertilized, sprayed, irrigated and mowed. To cover the costs, green fees were nearly $80. Rounds didn't meet expectations, budgets were slashed, and conditions became worse.
When Carter arrived in its third season, he found the greens in poor shape and the rough burned out. He soon converted the putting surfaces to Champion ultradwarf Bermuda, only the second course in the area to use what is now the most popular greens turfgrass across the South. (See "The South's Gonna Rise Again," Golf Digest, August 2011
) The benefits were environmental and financial: "We've reduced our fungicide applications from over $39,000 to around $8,500 annually," Carter says. "We've reduced the amount of irrigation to the greens by over one million gallons annually and have had zero overtime hours needed to syringe greens on hot afternoons."
With the help of the golf-shop staff, Carter identified 50 acres of out-of-play areas on the course that he switched to unmaintained native grasses. Carter estimates the unmowed grasses save nearly 7.4 million gallons of irrigation water, 400 gallons of fuel and 291 man-hours per year. The areas also serve as wildlife habitat and movement corridors for deer, raccoon, bobcat, turkey and countless birds and rodents.
The latest initiative is the use of state-of-the-art electric equipment. Using an alternative-fuel-sources grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority (funded through the Office of Sustainable Practices, a division of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation), 18 gasoline-powered pieces of equipment were replaced with electric ones. Carter still has to mow fairways with diesel equipment because electric fairway mowers are still in development. (He has agreed to beta-test the first models.) All other aspects of course maintenance are now handled by quiet, pollution-free equipment. That, too, is a money-saver. Carter estimates that this year the course will save 12,000 gallons of gasoline, reduce operational costs by $30,000 (otherwise spent on oil and hydraulic maintenance) and eliminate more than half a million point-source pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions. The costs of recharging batteries is half that of fuel, so he figures the greens mowers will pay for themselves in less than four years. His next goal is to establish a solar-panel array so the course can generate electricity and be fully off the grid.
Carter maintains the course with just seven full-time employees (including himself) on a shoestring budget of $385,000. Yet Bear Trace at Harrison Bay is a gorgeous, well-maintained daily-fee showcase. The lay-of-the-land Nicklaus design is surprisingly low-key, with just 42 bunkers and open approaches into the pure if not flawless greens. Every hole is tree-lined and, being within a state park, serene, with no homesites. Eleven holes touch the shoreline of the reservoir. Carter, working with the TVA and the Army Corps of Engineers, established buffer zones of vegetation to prevent any chemical seepage into the water. Testing has proved the course does not pollute the lake.
Harrison Bay was the first facility in Tennessee to be recognized as a Groundwater Guardian Green Site by the Groundwater Foundation of Nebraska. It received the Tennessee Governor's Environmental Stewardship Award in 2009 and 2012. It became a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary in 2008.
Carter, who was named 2011 National Superintendent of the Year by the online publication TurfNet, also serves as director of agronomy for the other state park courses—the Tennessee Golf Trail—and has helped the other eight courses become certified sanctuaries. He promotes sustainability with clubhouse displays, and local print, TV and radio appearances, and on his blog, bthbgcm.blogspot.com.
The course is now known around the world, thanks to its eagle mascots, whom Carter's daughter Hannah dubbed Elliott and Eloise. In the spring of 2012, Eloise hatched two eggs, but neither eaglet survived. That fall, the eagles began a new nest in an even taller pine to the left of the ninth fairway. Ranger Angelo was called back, shimmied up that tree, and this time installed three video cameras in just four hours. But this past winter, the eagles returned to their nest on the 10th hole. Two more eggs were laid in February, and in late March they hatched. This time the eaglets were healthy, and viewers watched as Elliott and Eloise fed them a steady diet of fish, turtles and waterfowl.
"Without the benefit of infrared cameras," Carter blogged, "we don't know if they're getting midnight snacks or not."
Cameras remain poised in both trees in anticipation of 2014. Carter is also hoping to rig both nests with microphones so sounds of the eagles can be webcast.