Virginia Beach, Va. – Oysters aren’t cute or cuddly. They aren’t particularly valuable –aside from pearl oysters. There are as many people who find oysters unpalatable as those who consider them a delicacy.
Neither photogenic nor in danger of extinction, oysters are not particularly appealing symbols for environmental conservation. But that’s just what these mollusks represent for the Lynnhaven River, a tidal estuary with a 64-square-mile watershed that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.
Since colonial times, Lynnhaven oysters were among the most sought-after varieties in the world. But pollution of the water had effectively shut down shellfish harvesting by the 1980s.
In 2003, local citizens formed Lynnhaven River Now, which seeks to restore and protect the river. Their efforts have helped to reduce the level of bacteria in the river, allowing parts of the river to re-open. Lynnhaven oysters are now back on local menus.
“They’ve planted beds of oysters all over the place,” said Cutler Robinson, director of golf operations at Bayville Golf Club, site of the 2011 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship. “Five percent of the Lynnhaven was available to be fished when we started. It’s at 40 percent now.”
Robinson has been working with Lynnhaven River Now for years as the co-chair of the group’s landscape practices committee. His role is to educate local residents about the negative effects of their behavior on the river.
Their positive actions could be as straightforward as picking up after their dogs – the waste adds bacteria to the watershed. Robinson also teaches the community about how to use fertilizer judiciously and properly to avoid runoff into the sewer system and eventually into the Lynnhaven.
“The biggest thing is education,” he said. “People want to do the right thing, and often the right thing isn’t any more difficult than the wrong thing.”
Robinson also sets an example for the Virginia Beach residents through his work at Bayville. The club, which has a Tom Fazio-designed course that opened in 1995, sits along a mile-long stretch of the shoreline of the Lynnhaven River. Due to the club’s location, environmental stewardship always has been a cornerstone of Bayville’s mission.
“Members of Bayville Golf Club have a mutual respect for the property’s immediate surroundings as much as the maintenance of the grounds itself,” said Bert Crawford, a founding member and the inaugural chairman of the green committee. “Since its inception, the club has taken an active role to improve and enhance local watersheds.”
Possessing an affable manner, unflappable patience and an extensive store of knowledge, Robinson is the perfect spokesperson to explain the club’s practices and benefits, even to those holding intractably negative views of golf’s impact on the environment.
“We have meetings here,” said Robinson. “I do tours with them. I’ve had people who don’t like golf and think it’s harmful get to know the course and get to know me.
“And the same person who used to think the golf course was bad will tell someone else how beneficial the golf course is for the environment.”
Since the course opened, Robinson has added naturalized, minimally maintained grasses and reduced the acreage of what he calls “high-input areas” – tees, fairways, rough, greens – by 20 percent. The club has engaged Fazio to put together a master plan that will reduce maintained turf by another 10 percent.
“I’m happy to be part of a club that’s doesn’t wants things manicured down to the inch,” said Robinson. “I would say the vast majority of the membership loves the natural look. The contrast of the tall grasses creates visual interest.”
For many, Robinson appears to be the exception: a course superintendent with an interest in the protecting environment. But he argues that reducing inputs is now the norm for all courses, for several reasons.
“Even if you don’t believe the golf course down the street doesn’t care about the runoff of their water,” he said, “they care about not wasting fertilizer. When their irrigation pump is using water he doesn’t need, the superintendent isn’t happy. He doesn’t want to overwater and spend more money than he needs. He’s a business person.”
A guardian of oysters and a high-profile community advocate, Robinson represents the best of what course superintendents can contribute to golf’s ongoing efforts to coexist with the environment. And he believes that others can do the same if given an opportunity.
“The shame is that it’s a slow process getting the word out,” said Robinson. “I wish other superintendents could go out and spend the time to communicate what he does, the way my ownership wants me to do.
“A golf course is a good place to be. It’s good for your health. It’s a carbon sink. It’s wildlife habitat. It’s a water filter. I think golf has a good future when people understand these things.”