Golf for Non-Golfers: Golf Courses Can Assist the Migratory Monarch Butterfly Facing Extinction
Golf courses should be islands of native plant species in our cities.
This is a post about milkweed.
Migratory monarch butterflies are now endangered. What does this have to do with golf? A lot. Some may be put off by environmental concerns being brought up. Collective problems are complex problems, however, the golf course as it currently exists, is perfectly suited as a host to many positive environmental influences. There are many problems created tho operation of golf courses on our environment, but here I want to examine some changes that can make golfers and courses proud of their efforts.
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Monarch butterflies that alight from Mexico and fly across the United States to Canada are being massacred. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laid out a grim statistic in February: Nearly a billion have vanished since 1990 as farmers and homeowners sprayed herbicides on milkweed, a plant the colorful creatures use as a food source, a home and a nursery.
In the urban setting, public parks and golf courses could be a refuge of nature. They aren’t, unfortunately. The use of typical grasses in the fairways, poa, fescue, bentgrass, kikuyu, etc. are necessary for now to providing green and fairway surfaces, however, the perfectness of these settings has a cost. Firstly, native plants are typically removed completely from the course, and herbicides and pesticides are used to ease the process of keeping unnecessarily “high quality” course conditions. These highly manicured golf courses, remove any chance for the golf course to serve anyone in the community besides the golfers. This narrow focus is exactly why many courses face increasing political challenges, and other courses are even facing potential removal.
Sharp Park Golf Course is a leader in turning the course into a refuge for nature, rather than trying to change it. This Alister MacKenzie designed course does not use pesticides or herbicides, and uses only very reasonable fertilizers:
“Many people don’t realize that for the past four years [since 2008] Sharp Park has been an all-organic golf course,” exclaims Kappelman. “We do not use pesticides. No chemical derived fertilizers or chemical treatment for the weeds. It’s been a challenge to eradicate some of the weeds and keep them under control and still maintain good playing conditions.”
Sharp Park was in a years long battle with the Center for Biological Diversity over the two endangered species that live on the property: the San Francisco garter snake, and the California red-legged frog. The course still exists in part due to these species, but more importantly, it’s an example of why courses do not need to go to absurd lengths seeking diminishing returns in “course quality.”
Sharp Park shows that the myth of course maintenance needs is simply a myth. Courses used to exist in a state of nature, they can continue to do so today.
Course “Quality” is Already Changing Existing Courses
Any discussion of course “quality” gets deeply into course expectations. While course expectations do not specifically hinge on herbicides and pesticides, they are likely major influences on course design and maintenance. Pinehurst #2’s restoration is a premium example of how expectations have changed courses, and the misguided criticisms about the changes are an example of exactly where we go wrong. Coore & Crenshaw should be lauded for bringing the course back to it’s regional setting with native rough and hazards.
To further illustrate this problem of the absurdity of changing expectations, I want to discuss changing expectations for greens. Imperfections in greens are problems when greens are absurdly fast. The development of the Stimpmeter has contributed to a major change in golf, transitioning from slower greens where reading the grain was a major issue, to fast greens where speed and imperfections are the primary concern.
Prior to making the Stimpmeter available to golf course superintendents and course officials in 1978, the USGA took trial measurements at 1,500 courses around the country over a two-year trial period.
“The average was 6.5,” said Jim Snow, who heads the USGA greens section. “There were a few at 7, and one or two really fast ones at 8. Then we went to Oakmont on a Wednesday afternoon and got an 11.5, which was 3 feet faster than any club we had tested in two years. That was a surprise. We were flabbergasted. We couldn’t believe it.
Stimps of 7 used to be fast, now it’s considered extremely slow. 11.5 was flabbergasting, now it’s considered the minimum for expected “quality.”
Chasing stimp ratings and green speeds are literally changing our courses. The Old Course dramatically changed #11, High (In), the Eden hole template, one of the most iconic greens in existence, simply because the greens were getting too fast. — Let that sink in — we are currently making dramatic modifications to the most notable courses in the world, to suit green speeds instead of changing the green speeds to best suit these courses.
Slower greens allow more imperfections, they focus on reading the grain of the grass more than the speed. I’m not saying quick greens aren’t both challenging and enjoyable, I’m suggesting that the costs required with changing expectations are effecting both the courses and the surrounding environment.
reducing the mowing height below the optimum height for a species or variety can result in a loss of shoot density, root growth and production, decreased carbohydrate synthesis, and increased susceptibility to environmental and biotic stresses. All of which contribute to reduced turfgrass wear tolerance.
Factors Affecting Green Speed, Peter Landschoot, Ph.D. & Dr. George Hamilton, Penn State University
Plain and simple, the stresses associated with maintaining the fastest green speed require many additional expectations on courses, and we can see from Sharp Park, any expectations on the realm of potentially harmful herbicides and pesticides are unnecessary. The only reason why pretend they are, is to chase theses modern expectations, which contribute significantly to slow play, all while we lose the skills associated with the previous era of golf.
One of the best changes to golf I’ve witnessed in my lifetimes, specifically in regards to wildlife, is the adoption of environmental hazards. These are red or yellow penalty area stakes, with green tips. They exist as a hybrid of traditional penalty areas and out-of-bounds. You cannot enter the environmental hazards to play a ball, similar to out-of-bounds, but you can drop instead of needing to re-tee.
The benefit of these types of hazards are two-fold. First, pace-of-play. One of the biggest reasons for slow play, especially in tournaments, is the need to search for balls lost in penalty areas, or even to re-tee shots out-of-bounds. This was such a problem that local rule stroke-and-distance was added in 2019. Environmental hazards speed up play dramatically, as there is no reason to look for a lost ball in the hazards, but the result is not nearly as penal.
The second, obvious benefit is that it creates an environmental habitat for native species, of both plants and animals. It is especially beneficial for species that benefit from low human per sqft that golf courses require. Native pollinators that would otherwise be restricted to private apiaries in an urban setting would benefit from large urban habitats. In addition, migratory species, such as the Migratory Monarch Butterflies, would benefit from undeveloped areas of native plant species. These habitats can’t really exist in public parks, because during high use times, there are too many people moving around without restriction.
All of this is about milkweed. Not just native species of milkweed, but native plants habitats as becoming part of the course. Planting native species of milkweed in environmental hazard areas for the benefit of the migratory Monarch butterflies. This is not a novel idea, in fact, BASF has started the Living Acres Monarch Challenge for exactly this purpose. They are a major manufacturer of fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides, and perhaps this was done for reasons of greenwashing, but nonetheless it is a fantastic idea. They have even produced a white paper explaining how golf courses can plant and maintain native milkweed for the purposes of migratory monarchs.
“Just like any other modern golf course
superintendent, I’ve been challenged to step
up our sustainability efforts. The monarch
habitat fits right into our sustainability goals.”
“The Monarch Challenge has been a big hit with the staff
and club members, as well as the outside community. People
who’ve never played golf have stopped by to see the habitat.
The conservation effort has also become personally important
to the club’s members. They feel good about it and invested in
it. I’d encourage all golf courses to explore the opportunity.”
Brian Green, Director of Golf Course Maintenance, Lonnie Poole Golf Course, Raleigh, NC
Combining large environmental hazards between holes for areas of native plant species, large urban environmental sanctuaries can be created.
Golf Courses Can Help
If you work or play at a golf course in an urban region in the path of these migrations, it is worth a bit of research. It’s not the fault of golfers that we’ve destroyed much of our native plant habitats, but our golf courses are the easiest place to install large swaths of these habitats for sensitive species. It’s a way the course can serve more than just the golfers. It’s a reason we can be proud of our golf culture in the face of increasing environmental and political concerns facing the game. If you operate a golf course, creating a native plant habitat, such as milkweed, is something few others can contribute to the community. It’s worth telling the neighbors about.
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