For The Love of Nature

Photo Courtesy Of Douglas Kelly

Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” Working for municipal golf courses for more than 27 years, I have found this statement to be true. But in Ann Arbor, Mich., in order to resonate with area golfers, courses have had to provide much more than a “love of nature.”

Tough Times

In 2006, the city—like many around the country—was facing tough economic times. With budget cuts and a loss of tax dollars, officials and residents questioned the city’s role in services outside of health, safety, and public administration. Unfortunately, parks and recreation seems to be one of the first divisions to be thoroughly analyzed; at that time, golf was the main specimen. Hundreds of questions were asked surrounding the golf courses’ role within the city. Since 2000, the dreaded “death spiral” has occurred where an overabundance of courses in the area led to the decline of golfers. That decline led to the slashing of rates to try to attract more golfers. Lower revenues meant budget cuts, which led to fewer staff members, inferior maintenance practices, and aging equipment. To bring the spiral full circle, fewer staff members and unkempt courses resulted in an even greater decline in retuning customers. And down they went. However, after a year of public meetings, cost analyses, and consultants, the city’s two municipal golf courses were given a reprieve.

Finding Value

In 2007, the city began to recognize the potential of courses as community assets—not only from a business point of view, but more importantly from an environmental point of view. Since these parks encompass more than 280 acres of sensitive green space and watershed outlets, a new mindset took hold that, if the city intended to be in the golf business, the city was going to do it right. A new attitude regarding the courses emerged. The “microscopes” revealed a lack of budgeted investments in the assets. The position of director of golf was created and filled. Scott Spooner, a member of Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, took over on grounds, and the city invested more than $620,000 for new turf equipment that gave staff members the necessary tools to begin its mission.

Over the next 5 years, staff members focused on several main components:

  1. Customer service

  1. Camaraderie

  1. Impeccable conditions

  1. Cleanliness

  1. Environment.

While the first four elements are the staples of any course’s business plan, the fifth element—the environment—is a wild card. But it was this component that helped define the city’s role and responsibility, which eventually led to success.

A Commitment To The Environment

The first goal of the environmental component was to disprove the stereotypical notion that “Golf is bad for the environment.” Efforts began on the local level with the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program (MTESP). This program organizes efforts of the turfgrass industry, state agencies, MichiganStateUniversity, and environmental advocacy groups to:

  1. Advance environmental stewardship by increasing the awareness and understanding of Michigan’s environmental resources and the potential impact of turf management.

  1. Enhance fish and wildlife habitat and indigenous vegetation, and protect water resources with buffer zones on golf-course properties.

  1. Clearly identify environmental laws and regulations and advance the compliance of the golf turf industry.

  1. Engage the golf industry, regulatory agencies, and environmental citizen groups in productive communication.

  1. Recognize, promote, and award environmental stewardship achievements.

It took 2 years, a few site inspections, dozens of small changes, and plenty of documentation, but the city obtained certification through the MTESP.

The city also decided to pursue certification from Audubon International, which works wi th golf courses to protect the environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game. The certification is designed to help enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that golf courses provide, enhancing efficiency and minimizing a course’s potentially harmful impact on the environment. Since many of the items were similar to those of the MTESP, the programs were pursued almost simultaneously. For Audubon International certification, six goals had to be achieved:

  1. Environmental planning

  1. Chemical-use reduction and safety

  1. Water conservation

  1. Water-quality management

  1. Outreach and education

  1. Wildlife and habitat management.

A Cultural Change

The city’s first course—Leslie Park Golf Course—was only the third course in the state to obtain both certifications. Both certifications were only $450 plus minor costs for miscellaneous changes needed to comply with state and federal environmental regulations. Besides all of the great publicity gained from acquiring these certifications, the city helped to increase wildlife habitat in areas that do not affect the game of golf, discover new and innovative ways to decrease water use, and maintain high water quality in ponds and streams.

Additionally, staff members took pride in earning these certifications and in seeing an increase in birds and other animals on the course.

Most people who work in the golf industry view their role as “stewards of the game.” Staff members in the city’s golf division have always recognized their responsibilities to the game, but now there is a larger responsibility to the land entrusted to them by the people they serve—the citizens. Having the “love of nature” that former President Carter mentions has changed the attitudes toward the golf division within the city and in the court of public opinion. Instead of a drain on resources, golf courses are now seen more as an asset to the community—both in a recreational and an environmental sense.

Douglas Kelly is the director of golf for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich. Reach him at (734) 794-6246, or .