Anything but Par for the Course

Exploring the Natural Capital Value of Golf Courses

By Marie Donahue | October 2017

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/

If you randomly ask someone on a city street to describe the game of golf, odds are good that even someone unfamiliar with the nuances of the game will be able to describe what a golf course looks like—the expansive and predominantly green open space on which the sport is played.

That landscape, like all managed green spaces in cities, has a range of impacts on the surrounding environment. And while it may come as a surprise to some members of the environmental community, leaders in the golf industry are taking serious steps to better understand those impacts and how to make golf and the courses on which it is played more sustainable.

Kimberly Erusha from the United States Golf Association (USGA) is one of those leaders and key partners working on a new collaboration that formed earlier this year. USGA joined with researchers affiliated with the Natural Capital Project’s Livable Cities program based at the Institute on the Environment led by Eric Lonsdorf and with the University of Minnesota’s Science of the Green Initiative led by Brian Horgan.

“The USGA has a decades-long history supporting turfgrass and environmental research. Although it may not have been under the current terminology of natural capital or ecosystem services, the work has focused on continually improving the value of golf courses within communities,” explains Erusha. The USGA has, for example, researched the impact of golf courses on ground and surface water quality and has worked with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to evaluate golf course wildlife habitat for birds, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians.

The new collaboration or Community Value of Golf Courses Project launched to help the golf industry understand the range of possible values and impacts that golf courses as natural capital provide to both golf facility owners and operators and the surrounding community.

“Recreation is certainly an attribute of value, but golf courses provide much more,” explains Horgan. “If you describe a golf course as not just for golf but as urban green space, the public immediately considers other uses of that land outside of recreation.  Much like a park, a golf course as urban green space is also a pollinator habitat and stormwater basin.”

As a kickoff to this project earlier this year, the Community Value of Golf Courses team convened participants from a variety of sectors for a workshop held at the University of Minnesota. The group explored these types of values on a single golf course and test approaches and models to measure them. Participants provided their perspectives on what types of environmental and social attributes a golf course provides.

Participants learn about the NatCap Approach

Participants learn about the NatCap Approach from Lead Scientist Eric Lonsdorf, during a workshop exploring the different values golf courses provide, hosted at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Minnesota, USA. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Science of the Green Initiative

Not all participants were familiar with golf or golf course management, and there were even some who, at least initially, were skeptical of the industry’s environmental impact.

“It is understandable for people in conservation to be skeptical of the value golf courses provide, but I think that is usually a gut reaction rather than something informed by knowledge of the alternatives for the land that a course occupies,” explains Lonsdorf, as he describes the pressure some golf courses are facing to be turned into housing or other urban development and not restored as natural landscapes. Lonsdorf and the rest of the team are motivated by these complexities. “This is precisely the partnership we need and the kind of challenge we need to address—one with inherent tradeoffs and opportunities for synergy,” he emphasizes.

Not all values provided by golf courses are mutually exclusive either. Team member and Science of the Green research scientist Parker Anderson was struck by this following the workshop.

“The interests of the various stakeholders aligned more than I expected,” Anderson reflects. “While someone representing a watershed and another from the golf industry may seem to have conflicting interests initially, they quickly realize there are ways for a golf facility to accommodate both at the same time with new management practices and some imagination.”

For example, Lonsdorf explains that while some think of golf courses as exclusive landscapes that are not welcoming to the public, others consider these courses valuable, undeveloped space in cities where contiguous green space is often limited.  With clever management, such as altering tee-times and access policies, golf course paths can be opened to the public for walking and other forms of recreation without endangering visitors or disturbing those playing a round of golf. In addition, best management practices that reduce pesticide and fertilizer use and increase native vegetation used in landscaping can lead to improvements in water quality valued by the surrounding community, when compared to status quo management practices or alternative, more developed uses of the land.

Informed by the results of the workshop, the team is now building capacity and beginning to collect the data and inputs needed to develop prototype models for a single environmental attribute for the University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. In this initial phase, the project’s focus will be on water—understanding one golf course’s impact on both water quality and quantity of the course and community’s urban watershed. The team will then scale up to modeling other attributes and ecosystem services that communities value such as pollination or urban heat island on more courses in the Twin Cities metropolitan region and ultimately in cities across the United States.

“We are just scratching the surface of the natural capital value of golf courses by focusing on one golf course in one city in the United States. There are approximately 14,000 more golf courses in the United States that our work can impact,” says Horgan.

Honeybee hive

Honeybee hive installations on golf courses are an increasingly common occurrence. Photo by Parker Anderson.

With this new collaboration and an enormous range of other research frontiers to explore, the possibilities for this team and future work are vast—particularly with a core partner and end-user such as the USGA that is serious about investing in rigorous, interdisciplinary science.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic and receptive the USGA has been to including natural capital in their sustainability goals for golf courses,” says Lonsdorf. “In the years to come, I’m particularly interested in learning about the fate of golf courses that were recently closed and determining how the inclusion of natural capital information may have altered those decisions.”

The team expects that lessons learned from this research collaboration will lead to a more sustainable golf industry and improved ways of understanding the relationship between golf courses and the surrounding community and environment.

The USGA provides information to facility decision-makers and golfers about golf course management. Research, data, models, or prototypes that draw attention to the interaction between the community and environmental benefits of golf courses will help guide discussions concerning the long-term sustainability of the golf industry,” explains Erusha, when asked about the value of this research and how it will be used. “Adjustments in management programs that enhance the impact golf courses have on their surroundings and improve the benefits provided to the public will help share golf’s role in its local community,” she adds.

The work will have a broader impact outside the golf industry as well. The team hopes it will support and complement efforts in NatCap’s Livable Cities program by providing a unique decision context and type of urban green space to develop prototype models and dive deeper into how nature and people interact in highly managed urban systems.

Marie Donahue is a Program Manager with the NatCap team at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment