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Sustainability Case Study: The Moorings Yacht & Country Club May 13, 2015 | VERO BEACH, FLA. By Lisa Mickey

Course superintendent Craig Weyandt has reimagined the environmental and wildlife conservation practices at the Moorings. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

Craig Weyandt, superintendent at the Moorings Yacht & Country Club here, likes to talk about “pushing the environmental envelope” to improve the golf course. That includes creating a more visually appealing atmosphere for members while staying focused on the plantings, including how and where they grow.

The Moorings temporarily closed for play in May 2003 to create a master drainage plan. But while the 18-hole, par-64 Pete Dye design that opened in 1974 was shut down to rework the interior ponds, Weyandt also took a hard look at the course’s overall landscape.

What he saw was a nearly mile-long hedge of invasive Brazilian pepper, as well as invasive Australian pines surrounding several greens. Power lines bordered one hole, completely lacking foliage cover. And there were shoreline concerns in a saltwater environment with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the brackish Indian River Lagoon to the west.

“I went to the members and convinced them to let me remove more than 200 exotic trees from the property,” he said. “That was a big deal because some of these trees had been here for a long time.”

Most of the invasive species on the course were removed. Australian pines were replaced with sea grape trees, known to control shoreline erosion, as well as native sabal palms, green buttonwood trees and salt-tolerant red mangrove trees adjacent to the lagoon. The Brazilian pepper hedge was replaced with numerous native species, including firebush, a nectar-producing plant that attracts butterflies.

And on the 13th hole, once visually dominated by overhead power lines, Weyandt planted more than 800 trees. Today, golfers are encased in an oasis of live oak trees, orange Geiger, gumbo limbo, cassias, as well as aquatic canna lilies, arrowhead and pickerelweed.

John Foy, director of the Southeast Region for the USGA Green Section, praised Weyandt’s proactive leadership to change and improve the Moorings.

“They looked at every aspect of the property to make sure there were no negative impacts on the environment while providing quality playing conditions for the game of golf,” said Foy. “Craig has gotten actively involved to make this property an environmental asset.”

Even after the course reopened in November 2003, Weyandt looked for ways to fine-tune the landscape. He asked his membership in 2009 to allow the lake banks to grow to 12 to 18 inches, rather than 2 inches, to create buffer zones around water hazards.

“At the time, our lake banks were mowed down to the water’s edge,” he said. “I felt like we could reduce maintenance, reduce runoff into ponds and create wildlife habitats. Now, I don’t think our members could imagine it another way.”

Weyandt learned the value of tree snags when he discovered an eastern screech owl and red-bellied woodpecker living inside a dead palm. He opted to enhance the course’s bird habitat, rather than chopping down native trees.

“This tree isn’t dead,” he said, pointing to a tree snag in a non-visible area of the course. “It’s alive with wildlife.”

Weyandt also has carefully captured and retained water on the property for as long as possible to filter nutrients. His course uses reclaimed water. With the Indian River Lagoon – one of North America’s most biologically diverse estuaries – bordering eight holes of the Moorings, he has remained vigilant regarding water-quality issues.

Earlier this year, Weyandt joined a community group that samples retention-pond water on the golf course. Testing materials are funded through a foundation and results are tabulated through the nearby Environmental Learning Center. The initiative also helps educate local homeowners associations about water, fertilizers, septic-tank management and nutrient-load risks in the lagoon.

The nearby Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute also performs regular seagrass surveys directly off the shores of the course’s outward nine holes. Through regular monitoring, Weyandt gets environmental feedback on his on-course practices.

“We apply pesticides and fertilizers only when we need to and we only water where and when it’s needed,” said Weyandt, who was certified in 2012 as a Florida master naturalist through the University of Florida. “We also overseed only on the club lawn and practice tee.”

A tour of The Moorings with Weyandt provides insights into the careful choreography of golf course and nature. Moorhens swim for cover with their chicks while viceroy butterflies shine on blossoms. Tilapia and largemouth bass lounge on clear-bottom ponds, while fiddler crabs scoot through sandy waste areas into tiny holes.

Along the way, Weyandt, who has offered on-course wildlife tours to members and guests for 10 years, points to a royal poinciana tree he planted on the course in 2010. He admittedly used a special fertilizer that day.

“We put dead fish under the root ball when we planted the tree and it just exploded,” said Weyandt, smiling.

And so did The Moorings, with some extra care from Weyandt and his staff. The course is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a proud distinction for its staff and membership.

“I’m fortunate the membership has allowed me to do some things here to transform our property,” said Weyandt. “I think we took what we had and made it better.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance golf writer and a Florida master naturalist who writes frequently for USGA websites. 

Gallery: See how sustainable golf course maintenance practices can foster a thriving ecosystem.