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Benefits Multiply From Environmental Stewardship April 21, 2017 By Lisa D. Mickey


Golf course superintendents think about a lot more than just growing and maintaining turf.

In fact, many will tell you that they are as focused on environmental stewardship as they are on turf management. They are thinking about water quality, water usage and water flow, both into and out of their courses.

They are also studying wildlife corridors and food chains, and evaluating how their golf courses fit into the community’s ecosystem.

“I think a landscape comes alive when there are butterflies and birds,” said Paul Stead, superintendent at Kennett Square (Pa.) Golf & Country Club, which is in Chester County, about 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Kennett Square earned a stewardship award in 2015 for its part in cleaning up the Delaware Bay watershed.

“It’s validation,” said Stead. “We’re doing our best and actually making improvements, rather than adding to the problems downstream.”

These days, when Matt Ceplo offers suggestions to the golfers at Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, N.Y., to make the course more environmentally sustainable, the longtime superintendent is typically greeted with enthusiasm.

“I don’t get the ‘who cares’ reaction much anymore,” said Ceplo, who won the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship in 2013 for his efforts. “In fact, a 10-year-old at the pool who asked why we were still using Styrofoam cups is also helping to make changes at our club.”

Rockland Country Club

Ceplo knew that if he wanted the golfers to allow him to grow milkweed to feed the monarch butterflies that pass through Rockland Country Club, which was founded in 1906 and sits on a bluff near the Hudson River, he would have to help them understand the monarch butterfly’s life cycle.

So last summer, he placed an aquarium with the “cool-looking caterpillars” on a branch of milkweed in the women’s locker room.

“They saw why monarchs need this plant for food and they also saw why I didn’t want to cut it down,” he said. “The monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed.”

As a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2001, Rockland Country Club has evolved as an enclave of nature wrapped within an outstanding golf course. It also has become a place where the local Audubon chapter conducts bird counts.

Ceplo established birdhouses for purple martins nearly 16 years ago. One local birder reported that the purple martins in those houses were the first of the species sighted in that area of Rockland County in 80 years.

The course also has 40 bluebird boxes. Once the birds start nesting, Ceplo climbs a ladder once a week to make sure house sparrows have not invaded the boxes and forcibly evicted the purple martins and bluebirds.

In addition to Rockland’s diverse bird population, 32 species of butterflies and a host of wild bees have been spotted on the course – thanks to the wildflowers planted by Ceplo.

“I knew nothing about birds, and now I’m going out there looking at butterflies and learning what kind of plants they eat,” he said.

Ceplo and his staff have eradicated most invasive plant species on the course. They also took 30 acres out of play to create native areas and established generous buffers of long grass and native vegetation around ponds to filter stormwater and provide habitat.

When Ceplo had to renovate the course’s pump house, he gave it a “green roof,” layering 6 inches of soil on top of the house and planting vegetation that would offer food and habitat for various species, while insulating the pump house and slowing water runoff.

To control algae in the pond, he uses sterilized grass carp and a device that kills a certain strain of algae with sound waves. As a result, the pond has not required treatment for algae in 18 years.

Ceplo’s big dream is to see all golf courses embrace the use of native plants. He also would like to see native areas on courses treated as hazards under the Rules of Golf. Such a move, he said, would encourage implementation of more native areas, improve pace of play, enhance habitat for native species and offer cost-saving benefits to courses.

Paul Jacobs, a Northeast Region agronomist for the USGA, works with Ceplo and is continually impressed by the stewardship efforts at the course. “Matt is a leader in implementing and promoting environmental stewardship,” said Jacobs. “The programs at Rockland are a great model for golf courses that are looking to enhance their environment and community.”

“Our course is very attuned to being in a community, and we want to be a good neighbor,” said Ceplo. “We also understand that sustainability is the future of the game and it’s the way the game is going to be managed, because we can save money through time and resources.”

Kennett Square Golf & Country Club

Superintendent Paul Stead is aware of the scrutiny that golf courses face. “It makes you really think about what you’re doing to make sure you’re doing it as well as you can,” he said. Stead works every day to set a positive example through the stewardship efforts at Kennett Square.

One improvement Stead made was in his equipment wash area. There was a risk that grass clippings from the mowing machinery could end up in an adjacent stream. Stead learned that discarded organic material contributes to nutrient loading in waterways, which encourages algae growth.

Restoring the section of Red Clay Creek that passes through Kennett Square Golf and Country Club has enhanced wildlife habitat and improved the golf experience. 

Restoring the section of Red Clay Creek that passes through Kennett Square Golf and Country Club has enhanced wildlife habitat and improved the golf experience.
Restoring the section of Red Clay Creek that passes through Kennett Square Golf and Country Club has enhanced wildlife habitat and improved the golf experience.
Restoring the section of Red Clay Creek that passes through Kennett Square Golf and Country Club has enhanced wildlife habitat and improved the golf experience.

So he created rain gardens in the equipment wash areas to help absorb and filter wash water before it reaches the stream. Rain gardens are sunken landscapes that capture runoff and filter it through soil and native plants. Clippings and sediment from the mowers are now captured by the rain garden rather than potentially washing downstream.

Stead also noticed a recurring runoff issue from the clubhouse parking lot after heavy rains, so he created a bioswale to help improve the situation. He removed a flower bed in the parking area and replaced it with a 3-foot-deep depression filled with a variety of plants that can absorb overflow water.

“It’s not just about marigolds and mulch,” said Stead. “It’s about connecting the dots and seeing how everything fits together.”

Red Clay Creek’s east branch flows through the course on holes 13 through 16, so each year, Stead and other club volunteers help to clean debris along the stream.

Consistently monitoring the creek allowed Stead to recognize shoreline erosion and its negative impact on the 13th green and 14th tee at Kennett Square. Stabilizing the shoreline would not only stabilize the holes adjacent to the creek, it would also improve water quality on the course and in the surrounding community.

At Stead’s urging, the club contributed to a stream restoration project that ultimately cost $800,000. He secured a $200,000 grant, but the rest of the funding came from the club, which later received a stewardship award from the local watershed association.

“I convinced our golfers to look at the stream holistically and to see our facility as a community asset and not just as a golf course,” he said. “When you take that approach, you’re more likely to get involved with community initiatives and to consider the surrounding area.”

A Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2010, Kennett Square has also dramatically reduced its use of fertilizer. Stead estimated that he used less than one pound of fertilizer per green in 2016 and did not fertilize the rough at all.

He reasoned that if they watered the course less, the grass would grow less, and if it grew less, they would mow less and also need less fertilizer, providing additional cost benefits.

“We decided to use water as a growth regulator for the grass,” said Stead. “And it caused a domino effect on everything else.”

Dave Oatis, director of the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region said, “Superintendents are working harder than ever to maintain courses while protecting and enhancing the environment. Well-managed golf courses can provide valuable habitat for wildlife and are a tremendous environmental asset to communities. Rockland and Kennett Square are two wonderful examples of golf courses that embrace environmental stewardship, and their environment, community and golfers are enjoying the benefits.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer and a Florida master naturalist who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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