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Golf courses attempt environmental changes, seek certification

Ryan Slabaugh

SUMMIT COUNTY – Golf courses, especially in the mountains, are notorious for sparking wild debate among environmentalists. Even when course superintendents like Brian Tanner, who manages The Raven at Three Peaks in Silverthorne, attempt to make courses coexist with their surroundings, environmental groups remain suspicious.

Traditionally, courses are most known as water-hogging pollution machines that import foreign plants and drive away native wildlife. However, that is all starting to change.

For Summit County course officials, environmental issues have taken a front seat in the drive for members. The River Course in Keystone, Keystone Ranch Golf Course, Breckenridge Golf Club and The Raven have all been certified, at least in part, by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for environmental work.

The Program (part of Audubon International and separate from the Audubon Society) offers certification to courses for environmental planning, water conservation, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water quality management and outreach and education.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” Tanner said. “We are out there trying to get the word out on what we’re doing. Once you educate people about this, they look at you in a different light.”

The members, he added, are being educated on the changes and how to maintain the course.

Karn Stiegelmeier, chair of the Blue River Group of the Sierra Club, said golf courses tend to mask the environmental damage they cause with such certifications. However, she said, any kind of focus on the environment is a big improvement.

“The only way for courses to go is to be more environmentally friendly,” Stiegelmeier said. “Where they develop courses makes a difference. A natural mountain valley that hasn’t been disturbed is one thing. Putting a golf course in a place like that isn’t quite the same as putting a golf course in the middle of a city where the habitat has been disturbed and destroyed.”

For The Raven to be certified for water conservation, it had to reduce the amount of water it applied from 1 million-plus gallons of water per night to around 700,000 gallons per night. Also, Tanner helped create no-mow zones to lessen water needs, as well as maximize the efficiency of irrigation equipment.

To lessen the amount of chemicals use, local courses have focused on attacking existing weeds instead of blanket spraying the course for prevention.

The decision to start a program for golf courses put Audubon International in a strange spot.

“We get flak from the golf industry saying we are asking too much and we get flak from the environmental groups saying we’re sleeping with the enemy,” said Joellen Zeh, program manager for Audubon International, based in New York. “We really want to have different levels to have people and courses reach to. We have different programs for courses that are just being developed, too. Those requirements are much more stringent.”

About 12 percent of golf courses in the country are in the program, and 1.5 percent are completely certified.

The certification process takes about a year, Zeh said. After a course sends in the paperwork to be included in the program, representatives survey the course to see how much work needs to be done. Then, improvements are made, new surveys are conducted and certificates are given.

One major improvement local courses have introduced is high grasslands around ponds and lakes. The grass filters the chemicals sprayed on fairways and greens and provides cover and food for wildlife, such as birds. A large osprey nest borders The Raven, forcing Tanner and his crew to keep close watch. To be a part of the program, all courses must monitor the health and numbers of animals on the course.

Summit County isn’t alone in its population of eco=minded golf courses. In Eagle County, six courses have joined the program. The courses have also formed a group focused on monitoring and protecting water quality.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate that, when managed properly, golf courses can actually help to contain nutrients and other runoff that might otherwise have an impact on local rivers and streams,” said Kevin Ross, director of golf course management for Country Club of the Rockies, in the program’s case study.

For more information, check out http://www.audubonintl.org.

The local members of the three levels of certification into the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program:

Certified in all six categories (environmental planning, water conservation, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water quality management and outreach and education):

– River Course in Keystone

– Breckenridge Golf Club

– Cordillera Mountain Course

– Cordillera Valley Club

– Cordillera Short Course

– Vail Golf Club

Active (soon to be certified in all six categories):

– The Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks

– Keystone Ranch Golf Course

– Sonnenalp Golf Club

– Country Club of the Rockies

Registered (joined but not certified in any categories):

– Eagle Springs Golf Club

– Eagle-Vail Golf Club


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