The Green Living Guy

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

Photo courtesy of Lauren Kamp


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. Thereby offering a glimpse of what the future holds for a piece of land. One 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. All in at least 13 states across the country. Most noteworthy converting courses closed due to reduced demand into nature preserves, parks and restored wetlands.

From Washington to New Jersey and Florida to Wisconsin. I mean 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.

Yes folks, I mean as residential developments.

Also includes the community opposition. Then let’s not forget zoning requirements and locations in floodplains. So all are barriers to development. Areas prone to flooding may be poor candidates for residential development. However for they are perfect locations for wetland restoration efforts. All the while perfect sites zoned for open space. Also are candidates for parks and nature preserves. For that’s better to avoid all those 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. Also a dilapidated infrastructure. Finally 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.

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. For it is a result of past fertilizer use and an influx of nutrients from a nearby water treatment facility. All of course also used for irrigation.

Lemon Bay

In 2010, Lemon Bay purchased the shuttered Wildflower Golf Club. This was also after plans for a residential development stalled. Most interestingly amid the 2008 financial crisis. So then the small conservation organization employed solar aerators. Also they added artificial islands of native vegetation.

In addition to water pumps and volunteers armed with nets to remove vegetative cover. Finally and reducing nutrient levels. Today the ponds are clear and the nutrient levels have normalized.

Invasive Species

If not managed right away, opportunistic invasive plant species can quickly dominate. Especially 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. All from the Lemon Bay Conservancy’s preserve. Furthermore 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

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

For there were underground sprinklers. Also utilities and electric lines. Therefore all sorts of hazards. Especially safety concerns and security issues. These were the concerns of Joe Engel, executive director of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

For Joe partnered with the nature center to acquire the property. However and before the public could set foot on the site was phase one. I mean cart paths had to be removed. As well as trails had to be cut through. I am talking serious overgrown fairways. Finally and invasive species had to be managed.

Blank Canvasses

Despite the challenges, golf courses offer relatively blank canvases for restoration. All ecologists to work with. Since they are pretty large spaces. So you’re most interestingly talking also about 150 to 200 acres. Then often times it’s very flexible as to what type of threatened or endangered species habitats you can put there. I mean that’s what Yoder says.

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