AS HUNDREDS OF GOLF COURSES CLOSE, NATURE GETS A CHANCE TO MAKE A COMEBACK SAYS ENSIA

Bogeys may be gone, but birdies and eagles thrive as former greens and fairways are transformed into wild spaces.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Kamp

WRITER

Travis Wood

MPPA Candidate, University of Missouri–St. Louis

November 8, 2017 — No longer constrained by repeated mowing and herbicide applications, the manicured fairways of the shuttered Highlands Golf Course in western Michigan have given way to tall grasses swaying in the breeze, interrupted only by more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of looping trails in what is now The Highlands natural area. Several of the old greens are now tall and short-grass prairie plots, offering a glimpse of what the future holds for a piece of land that had been a golf course for the past 100 years.

By annexing the 121-acre Highlands Golf Course, the Blandford Nature Center is following a path blazed by organizations in at least 13 states across the country: converting courses closed due to reduced demand into nature preserves, parks and restored wetlands. From Washington to New Jersey and Florida to Wisconsin, dozens of golf courses have been transformed into natural areas, providing new recreational and environmental education opportunities to surrounding communities and restoring habitat for native plants and animals.

Annexed by Blandford Nature Center, the former Highlands Golf Course in western Michigan is now home to prairie plots and looping trails instead of fairways and greens. Map data: Google

“The potential for recreation to meet with wildlife habitat is pretty rare, because not much large open space is available for that kind of development in urban space,” says landscape designer Nick Yoder, who examined sustainable reuse options for closed golf courses as a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. Golf courses offer a unique and valuable opportunity to protect green space from development and incorporate nature into existing developed areas.

Opportunity Knocks

During the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s more than 4,000 golf courses were built to feed an expected growth in demand tied to baby-boomer golfers. But the cost and time commitment required to play eroded demand, putting courses across the country out of business. Golf participation dropped nearly 17 percent, from a high of 30 million players in 2003 to 25 million in 2013, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the problem, resulting in owners placing large tracts of open land on the market, often in the heart of urban or suburban areas starved for green space. In fact, golf course closures have exceeded openings every year since 2006, according to the NGF, with 211 courses closing their doors in 2016. And the NGF expects the trend to extend for several more years as an oversaturated market continues to shed unprofitable courses that fail to find sufficient players to pay green fees.

Highlands Golf Course changed dramatically between spring 2016, when the course was still operational, and summer 2017, after it was renovated by Blandford Nature Center. Photos courtesy of Colin Hoogerwerf

After the housing market collapse beginning in 2007, nature-preserving organizations in Ohio, Wisconsin and many other states took advantage of affordable land prices to purchase golf courses, protecting green space from development. While many defunct courses are repurposed as residential developments, community opposition, zoning requirements and locations in floodplains are all barriers to development. Areas prone to flooding may be poor candidates for residential development, but perfect locations for wetland restoration efforts, while sites zoned for open space are candidates for parks and nature preserves that avoid contentious rezoning efforts.

Readied for Restoration

Once acquired, a golf course must be readied for restoration. This can include dealing with potential water quality issues, dilapidated infrastructure, security concerns, invasive species and more. And conditions that were perfectly fine for growing grass might need upgrading to make them suitable for other vegetation. “A lot of times [turf management] leaves behind a layered profile of soils that is not very conducive for a healthy reforestation effort,” Yoder says.

Visitors hike a trail at The Highlands natural area, formerly Highlands Golf Course. Photo courtesy of Colin Hoogerwerf

At Lemon Bay Conservancy’s Wildflower Preserve — situated between Sarasota and Fort Myers, along the Gulf of Mexico — thick mats of duckweed covered three interconnected ponds, a result of past fertilizer use and an influx of nutrients from a nearby water treatment facility used for irrigation. In 2010, Lemon Bay purchased the shuttered Wildflower Golf Club after plans for a residential development stalled amid the 2008 financial crisis. The small conservation organization employed solar aerators, artificial islands of native vegetation, water pumps and volunteers armed with nets to remove vegetative cover and reduce nutrient levels. Today the ponds are clear and the nutrient levels have normalized.

If not managed right away, opportunistic invasive plant species can quickly dominate the open spaces that make up vacant golf courses, so routing them is an important part of renewing the landscape. More than 50 acres of non-native Brazilian pepper trees were removed from the Lemon Bay Conservancy’s preserve, and it will be a constant battle in the near term to keep invasive species at bay.

Lemon Bay Conservatory’s Wildflower Preserve in western Florida features wetlands that help cleanse water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Map data: Google

“Treatment on an ongoing basis until we can really get a new native community established is a real long-term challenge we’re worried about,” says Eva Furner, a Lemon Bay Conservancy board member and chair of the Wildflower Preserve Committee.

It took more than five months to prepare the Blandford Nature Center’s Highlands site for public use.

“You have underground sprinklers, utilities, electric lines. All sorts of hazards, safety concerns, and security issues,” says Joe Engel, executive director of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, which partnered with the nature center to acquire the property. Before the public could set foot on the site, cart paths had to be removed, trails had to be cut through overgrown fairways, and invasive species had to be managed.

Despite the challenges, golf courses offer relatively blank canvases for restoration ecologists to work with. “Since they’re pretty large spaces, 150 to 200 acres, often times it’s very flexible as to what type of threatened or endangered species habitats you can put there,” Yoder says.

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