Paul Carter refuses to let staff and budget limitations impede his environmental initiatives at The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, a public golf facility near Chattanooga, Tenn.
Carter, the course’s superintendent, and his full-time staff of six have drastically decreased water usage, chemical usage, gas emissions and noise. The only things increasing are resident wildlife, natural vegetation and golfer enjoyment.
In his 13th year at The Bear Trace, Carter, 45, will receive the prestigious President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship from the board of directors of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America on Feb. 25 at the 2015 Golf Industry Show in San Antonio, Texas.
While the current facility at The Bear Trace has earned Carter numerous awards in recent years, it was born from inauspicious beginnings. A Jack Nicklaus design, the course opened in 1999 in a remote, non-residential part of Tennessee. Initially operated by Redstone Golf Management, things changed drastically in 2005 when the state of Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation gained control of the property.
A facelift was ordered for the “wall-to-wall green” layout, and conservation was the name of the game – from both an agronomic and financial standpoint.
Fortunately, Carter had a head start. Carter and his staff converted the greens from bentgrass to Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass in 2003 to make them more receptive to summer conditions.
“That’s the best decision we have ever made,” Carter said. “That’s when we really started to save money. Chemical expenditures went down from $39,000 a year on bentgrass to $9,000 a year on ultradwarf, while also cutting out the need for pesticides.”
With the state in full support of his environmental initiatives, things progressed in a purposefully slow pace. With some help from Jim Moore, the USGA Green Section’s director of education, Carter installed mallard nesting tubes, wood duck boxes, 45 bluebird feeders and gravity feeders for wild turkeys.
Carter then set out to remove 50 acres of highly maintained land that wasn’t being utilized by golfers. He and his staff removed 10 acres per year and let the area’s natural grasses take its place. Carter estimates that he reduced annual water usage by 7.4 million gallons, approximately 20 percent of the course’s overall water usage, by eliminating those 50 acres. Carter also renovated the irrigation system to water only the greens and not the surrounds, reducing water usage by another 1 million gallons with associated electricity savings.
This water-management process, along with the creation of vegetative buffer strips to protect the water surrounding the golf course, helped The Bear Trace become the first site in Tennessee to be certified as a Groundwater Guardian Green Site by the Groundwater Foundation.
The environmental efforts at Harrison Bay received proper validation in 2010 when a pair of bald eagles built a nest in a tree near the 10th green. Affectionately known as Elliott and Eloise, the iconic American birds quickly became an online sensation and can be viewed online at www.harrisonbayeaglecam.org. Thanks to funding from the USGA, Carter and his staff were able to install cameras near the nest so viewers could get a closer look at the couple’s comings and goings.
The USGA funded further improvements last year, including a microphone, pan/tilt/zoom camera and infrared camera.
“I wouldn’t be able to share this without the generosity and support of the USGA,” Carter said last February. “We wanted to show that this can be an environmental sanctuary and they’ve helped us reach more people than we could have on our own. I hope they’ve gotten as much out of it as we have.”
While Carter and his staff had already implemented multiple environmental initiatives, the game forever changed two years ago in the form of a $432,000 Clean Energy Grant. The grant money was used to purchase electric maintenance equipment. With the exception of backpack blowers, Carter and his staff now exclusively utilize electric equipment to maintain the greens at Harrison Bay on a daily basis. Carter estimates that he saves 9,000 gallons of fuel per year, with only a slight increase in electricity costs to charge the equipment.
Since going electric, Carter and his staff have had more than 450 zero-emission days, an approximate reduction of 182,000 pounds of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.
“The electric equipment has been tremendously well received,” Carter said. “Not because people notice it, but because people don’t notice it. We’ll be mowing on a hole right next to them and they’ll see us and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were here.’
“It’s the same equipment, it just has a battery instead of an engine. There’s no loss in quality of operations. The only thing you’re losing is noise, pollutants and expense.”
Because of his efforts at The Bear Trace, Carter took special interest in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. The iconic Course No. 2 at Pinehurst had been restored to its 1930s-era design. Rough was replaced by native areas and water usage was drastically decreased, creating an entirely new look from the lush green course people remember from the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst.
“I actually played Pinehurst No. 2 after the U.S. Open and loved it,” Carter said. “It felt like the way golf was meant to be played. Not everything has to be green. I have found the players at my course actually prefer hitting from the firmer fairways as opposed to the lush, well-watered fairways.”
Carter believes golf’s future is dependent on other courses following a similar model of sustainability, but also understands that different courses offer different circumstances. However, he believes there are three universal keys other superintendents can adopt to produce similar results: pace, patience and participation.
First things first, begin with realistic goals such as naturalizing a patch of highly maintained turf.
“Accomplish some small tasks, show some progress and that will all build into bigger and better things,” Carter said.
Second, golf course maintenance is not for those looking for quick fixes. Even the smallest of tasks can take years to come to fruition.
Third, and arguably most important, get everyone to support your ideology.
“You need to get your crew to buy into it,” Carter said. “Everyone here has completely bought in, and then you get the pro shop employees into it. That leads to members buying in and prominent members of the community buying into it. You can go into it completely determined to do certain things, but if you don’t have the proper support, you’re not going to be very successful.”
While the road to golf course sustainability isn’t a one-way street, Carter’s methodology proves much can be gained despite limited resources. But it’s going to take a team effort to effect industrial change.
“Paul’s leadership at Harrison Bay has created better golf conditions, great publicity for golf at the park itself, and is a beacon for what is possible at facilities with limited financial resources, but a desire to become more sustainable,” said Chris Hartwiger, USGA senior agronomist for the Southeast Region.
While the professional accolades are nice, the 30,000 rounds of golf per year at The Bear Trace tell the real story. For any superintendent willing to follow in the reduced-carbon footprints set forth by Carter and his crew, it can be your story, too.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.