Climate change: Canadian golf courses strive to reduce their ecological impact

The origins of golf can be traced back hundreds of years to rural Scotland where the natural features of the terrain near Edinburgh created the hazards golfers had to play at and sheep kept the grass tidy.

But the game spread around the world in the centuries that followed with different environments forcing the technology used to maintain golf courses to evolve far beyond the sheep. Golf courses have become divisive, with some environmentalists criticizing their use of pesticides and fresh water, but advocates say they can be oases that give cities and suburbs important green space.

Dr. Sara Stricker of the Turfgrass Institute at the University of Guelph wants to bridge that gap between golf course critics and their supporters.

“Golf courses, especially in highly urbanized areas, are the last remnants of our natural spaces and I think it’s important to protect them,” Stricker said. “Superintendents are not mean people. They are people with children, families and dogs.

“They also want the environment to be as healthy as possible and they need to preserve the area they are responsible for caring for.”

The Turfgrass Institute strives to develop tougher, more durable types of turf for playing surfaces like golf courses and soccer fields. Stricker said many golf courses serve as hubs for sustainability innovations, including increasing their ability to capture carbon and developing new water conservation practices.

As an example, Stricker said the Turfgrass Institute helps develop new crop varieties of grass that use less water.

“The same way McIntosh and Granny Smith are cultivable apple varieties, you can keep the same species (of grass) or switch to more drought-tolerant species,” Stricker said. “We’ve done a few trials in Ontario with Kentucky bluegrass and also tall fescue, two different turfgrass species, in partnership with a group called Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance.

“So when a golf course wants to reduce their amount of water input, they can switch to a drought-tolerant variety that we tested here.”

Pesticides are another problem, however.

Because the grass on a tee, fairway and green must be so well maintained to be playable, golf superintendents must use pesticides and other chemical treatments to help keep the turf alive. .

In Ontario, golf courses must submit annual usage reports to the Integrated Pest Management Council. In their report, they must explain why they applied, how much was applied, and what they plan to reduce to maintain their IPM certification, which gives them permission to continue spraying their managed turf.

Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto who specializes in strategies for reducing chemical contaminants in the environment, is deeply concerned about the ecological impact of golf courses in Canada. She said Ontario’s Pesticides Act of 1990, which provides the province’s framework for regulating pesticides, was an important development, but notes that golf courses are largely exempt.

“We’re in a much worse situation now when it comes to the pollinator population,” Diamond said. “The population of songbirds is collapsing, amphibians are already down a lot.

“There needs to be a way for golfers to enjoy the outdoors, making sure golfers’ grandkids aren’t just looking at pictures of frogs in books, but actually knowing that there are live frogs.”

Diamond also flagged the use of fertilizers on golf courses as a concern because it can have the immediate adverse effect of having too many nutrients in the water, which can cause serious damage to an ecosystem. Under extreme conditions, over-fertilization can kill fish because it promotes algae growth, which in turn sucks oxygen from the water and prevents fish from breathing.

Audubon International, a New York-based nonprofit environmental education organization, certifies golf courses around the world to ensure they limit their use of pesticides and fertilizers. Frank LaVardera, the organization’s director of environmental programs for golf, said even the smallest changes to a course can make a huge difference to its environmental impact.

“Your typical 18-hole golf course might be 150 to 200 acres of total ownership, but have 70 to 80 acres of managed turf,” said LaVardera, who notes there are 75 courses across Canada. fully certified by Audubon International. “When courses come into our program, we encourage them to find ways to reduce and eliminate some of this managed territory.

“As you go around (a course) you can identify 3,000 square feet here, 5,000 square feet there, 10,000 square feet here, and before we know it, you could reduce the managed turf by maybe three, four or five acres.”

When a course reduces its managed turf, it automatically decreases all inputs, including water, chemicals, less gasoline for lawn mowers, and therefore its overall environmental impact. Other innovations, including more precise robotic lawn mowers and computer-controlled pesticide sprayers, also mean less wasted chemicals, burned fuel and overall savings for golf courses.

The location of a golf course is important because, despite the disadvantages of land, it could still represent the best possible use of land.

“If the choice was to leave land, totally undeveloped, and in its natural state, as opposed to building a golf course, obviously, we would say, leave it in its total natural state, that would be best. for the environment,” LaVardera said. “But it’s not really the real world, people own property and people develop property.

“Golf, as we know, is a multi-billion dollar global industry, so people will build golf courses. Our philosophy is that if you’re going to build a golf course, or you’re operating a golf course, let’s exploit it in the most sustainable way possible.

Stricker noted that most golf courses were originally built outside urban centers, but sprawl has grown around them, leaving them as major heat sinks and carbon sinks. for suburban communities.

“A lot of people say that in cities it’s like, ‘oh, take the golf course and turn it into a park.’ Great. Who’s going to pay for that?” Stricker said. “When a golf course closes, it doesn’t turn into a park.

“And then it’s more paved space and more houses and no green space. So in an urban space, yes, absolutely a golf course, that makes the most sense.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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Michael C. Ford