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“Golf has a unique role to play in caring for our environment. By their very nature, golf courses provide significant natural areas that benefit people and wildlife in increasingly urbanized communities across North America.  At the same time, golf’s use of chemicals, water, and other resources to maintain pristine golfing conditions is often criticized for threatening the quality of our environment.”

— Audubon International



Forest Dunes

I have a confession to make. Many years ago on a well-known Michigan course, I tried to hit a wetland laden par-5 in two – and missed. Venturing into the muck and mud, a ‘natural area’ unknown to me at the time, I not only found my ball, but 80 others in a 5 minute time span. What fortune! I basked in my own glory until discovering a sign yanked rudely out of the ground and tossed aside: ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area – DO NOT ENTER’.

I dared not venture back into such a forbidden area, newly informed, despite my willingness to return the golf balls.

Today, those signs are everywhere. How did they get there?

In recent times, detractors have denounced golf courses as polluters of the environment directly conflicting with preservation purposes. This may have been true years ago but one can hardly say such shoddy craftsmanship goes on today. Not only would it be shamefully unconscionable, but government agencies would object.

Enter Audubon International (AI). You’ve heard the name before, as in John James Audubon, wildlife artist and keen observer of birds. With that in mind, isn’t Audubon all about watching birds? And, what does that have to do with golf?

To answer the question, one needs to clear up a common misunderstanding. Though they share the same namesake, Audubon International has absolutely nothing to do with the National Audubon Society. Perhaps the two groups share a love of birds and bird watching, but that’s where it ends. However, it is fitting that the younger Audubon International organization, formed in 1987, is also named after a man who was described as ‘triumphing over adversity’, possessing ‘strength and endurance’ and who ‘encapsulated the spirit of a young America’ during the early 1800s. Sounds like the portrait of a golfer to me.

Actually, Audubon International oversees a number of programs, besides golf, which protect the environment. More specifically, the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses (ACSP), created in 1991, is a highly specialized award winning certification program which educates, enhances, and protects the heritage of the game of golf. Divided into two separate affiliations, the ACSP is for already established golf courses which implement and document environmental management practices to earn their Sanctuary status. In 1993, the Audubon Signature Program was created solely for proposed projects still in the development stage which adhere to stringent practices as the course or project is being built and developed.

There are three levels of the Audubon Signature Program: Gold, Silver, and Bronze. Membership in these depends upon the complexity of the project, the level of Audubon involvement in planning and follow-up, and at which stage of development the project was in.

Currently, only one Signature Gold course exists in Michigan, and it is a dandy — Forest Dunes in Roscommon. In addition to stunning scenery, perfect conditioning, and an impeccable Tom Weiskopf design, the course was molded with local flair and talent. Michigan’s own Tom Smith, Executive Director of the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation, ‘discovered’ the par-3 16th.

Cedar River

“ It was a pure hole, a natural dunes area,” said Smith. “We molded the course after this and basically re-did the whole back nine to isolate the turf areas among the natural dunes. Mr. Weiskopf designed the layout, but the look, well, everything that is not green, is mine. Fine fescue had been ordered to do the rough but was sent back when the dune concept was born.”

Forest Dunes also sets the gold standard for excellence in many areas including chemical and pest management practices any golfer would value: use of low impact chemicals and organic based fertilizers, bi-annual soil testing, pesticides sprayed on a curative basis only, and use of grasses which are drought tolerant and have good disease resistance.
True North in Harbor Springs is the only Silver Signature golf course in Michigan. Owner John Hover took over the club in 2006 and is continuing the journey toward certified status with talented course superintendent Steve Sump. A gorgeous mix of elevation, woodlands, ponds, and other natural surroundings maintained by natural methods set forth by AI, this course should headline your ‘must-play’ list, now that Hover has opened the course up for public play in 2008 and beyond. Wildlife commands the right of way here, where native areas cover 77 acres and the managed turf area is actually less, at 73 acres. Because the course is surrounded on three sides by state land and conservation easements, True North will enjoy true serenity for many years to come.

Gull Lake View in Augusta is a complex consisting of 5 separate courses, all of which have been ACSP members since 1995. Co-owner and Grounds Director Charlie Scott stressed that we all need to be aware of our environmental situation.

“ Do people know how lucky we are in Michigan to have the water situation we do? In California it can cost over $250,000 per year for irrigation. Here, it costs me only what I pay to run the pumps,” he said. “We take seriously our role as protectors and stewards. We have to want to do it.”

In keeping with the community outreach programs ACSP requires, Gull Lake works with the Kalamazoo Nature Center in monitoring 125 bluebird boxes on the course. Beginning in April, volunteers record species, band 10-14 day old birds, and chart their return. Tree swallows also make their nests on the course, migrate to South America, and return to the exact same box each year…..sort of the original GPS nav system! In the clubhouse pro shops there are recording stations where golfers can write what they saw on the complex.

One unique feature at Gull Lake is the latest project the Scott family has undertaken: Crane’s Pond, which is a Silver Signature residential development. Basically a planned community, this subdivision consists of detached condominiums where people will own the property jointly along with the open space. Walkways, paths, playgrounds, and a community park will comprise about 60 percent of the total 200 acre parcel and will follow the Audubon guidelines.

Fox Hills in Plymouth has been a Cooperative Sanctuary course since the early 90s. Co-owners and sisters Kathy Aznavorian and Sandy Mily, and their mother, Estelle Dul, felt that golf courses got a bad rap because of their chemical and pesticide use. In order to turn a bad situation into a positive spin, they decided to learn what to do to minimize costs through better planning.

“ What amazed me was discovering what I didn’t know about a golf course environment,” said Aznavorian.
Environmental education is vital at Fox Hills: Greens Superintendent Eric Niemur gives presentations to many civic groups; course personnel work with Salem Elementary School to observe bird nesting boxes, and like Gull Lake, a bluebird birdhouse course construction project was undertaken to correct a 50-year decline in the Eastern Bluebird. Inside the clubhouse, there is a display cabinet with authentic bird carvings for easier identification of species; and a special section of Fox Hills’ regular newsletter is devoted to environmental information.

Aznavorian found that by using a diversity of plantings they could increase wildlife by changing host plants. Now there are Baltimore Orioles, hawks, and even mink. Butterflies and hummingbirds love the trumpet vines surrounding the wedding gazebo. Natural prairie grasses require basically no maintenance, yet are great cover for birds, deer, and pheasant parades.

Do people seek out Fox Hills because of their natural practices? Aznavorian replied, “No. It’s simply the right thing to do. We’re stewards of the land, which is ours only to borrow and leave better than we found it. People complain about golf courses taking up open spaces. Well, at least we aren’t a Meijer’s parking lot!”

The newest club to join the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary fold is also one of the most breathtaking courses in the state: The Legend at Shanty Creek, in Bellaire. New course superintendent Chad Corp’s priority was to work towards ACSP status, which began in 2006. Chemical and fertilizer reduction programs are already in place and the outreach programs necessary to complete the certification are slated for area schools in the near future. Corp hopes to gain ACSP designation by May 2008.

“ I’m an anti-fertilizer kind of guy. We hope educate people as to why some areas of the course are not as green, or why we’ll leave unmowed some fairways on par-3’s; but they’ll appreciate it when they see deer and foxes rummaging around in those long grasses,” explained Corp.

Working on this designation does not come without price. Interestingly enough, the organic and healthy foods initiative enlightened humans are embracing in this country’s climate of ill-health and obesity applies to golf courses as well. By ‘feeding’ The Legend organic and micro-nutrient laden foods and fertilizers, Corp said that the need for pesticides, chemicals, and other fixes would be lessened. Though more expensive, with organic fertilizer’s $33.00 price tag per bag at almost twice the cost of normal fertilizers, the price is worth it for a safer and more attractive natural environment.

Other public courses in the Cooperative Sanctuary Program up in northeastern Michigan are Black Lake GC in Onaway, owned by the UAW, and Bruce and Donna Wolfrom’s White Pine National in Spruce. Both courses are natural wonders whose owners take great pride in providing a terrific golf experience as well as a look at nature’s best handiwork.

While Michigan is getting kicked in the teeth economically and is the butt of jokes around the nation, there are two positives no one can take away. First, the greatest gift is the state’s abundance of fresh water. Golf courses are serious about preserving this resource.

Kathy Aznavorian had been unaware that their mowing practices of nipping turf up to the edge of ponds was detrimental. “We were unknowingly allowing chemicals and fertilizers to leach into the water,” she said. “Now, we leave the grass longer to trap the pollutants.” Certainly the golfers appreciate it too!


Secondly, the homegrown Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program (MTESP) is recognized as one of the most effective programs in the nation. Founded at Michigan State University and in cooperation with the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation, the Golf Association of Michigan, and the Michigan Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Quality, over 240 member courses voluntarily implement measures to prevent pollution, protect water resources, enhance wildlife habitat, and reduce energy use. Of the 20 ACSP courses in Michigan, most are members of the MTESP as well.

Once courses know about ACSP it would seem a no-brainer to join. In fact, a majority of Golf Digest Magazine’s top 100 courses are ACSP members. Obviously quality equates with conscientiousness. So, why wouldn’t a course attain ACSP status if it is good for both the course and the environment? The answer lies in the perceived time, effort, and expense needed to work within the program. Larry Bowden, owner of The Natural in Gaylord had this to say:

“ I was a member of ACSP for six years until I lost my course superintendent who had the zeal for this. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue though I still think it’s a great idea. Without the staff and support, you can’t do what needs to be done.”

However, the ACSP maintains that by following the guidelines, growing out more natural areas saves work and greens personnel can spend time elsewhere. If you play at a course that is not a member of either the ACSP or MTESP, encourage the owner to become one. If you own a course, consider joining. Contact Joellen Zeh, Program Manager at Audubon International at 518.767.9051 or check out the website at MTESP can be contacted at or call 517.355.0271.

Either way, everyone wins. As Michigan golfers, it’s up to us to patronize the hundreds of courses which take extra care in keeping their properties ‘green’ and……maybe not so green…… preserving water and natural resources. Enjoy the sights and the sounds of nature doing what it does best: surviving.

About those contraband golf balls. To ease my conscience, I donated them to a junior golf program.


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