What a Flub: Golf & Its Impact on Earth
Golf! An escape; a place to let off steam, clear your head, and de-stress. A passion; skills that take years to fine-tune and perfect, if you’re lucky enough to have access to the resources. A symbol of wealth and power–elitism and sexism. A scenic view; man-made environments that are detrimental to natural habitat. It is a close-to-home, complicated intersection, with no real solution in sight.
Adding to the mess, golf associations pay for greenwashed publicity–they’re aware of the damage they cause and worse than ignoring it, they’re actively presenting lies in a widespread attempt to hide the truth. Capitalism the beautiful, baby. Greg Norman (the Australian golfer) promotes his own golf course design business. He acknowledges “environmentalists frequently portray golf courses as ‘chemical wastelands’ and goes on to add, “golf courses can be community assets. Not only can they elevate property values, create jobs and provide tax revenues, they can also provide green spaces, filter air, purify water and create wildlife habitat.”
Well, from a wealthy, white man’s perspective, I’m sure this laundry list of blessings seems plausible. But through other lenses, the statement is laughable. Stormin’ Norman’s working theory of golf ecology is full of holes (and I wager we can find at least 18).
“Elevated Property Values”
Country clubs, built on a history of social exclusivity, are unaffordable to most Americans, and non-member access is aggressively discouraged. Within a hundred feet of a golf course, property tends to be 7.6% higher in value. Homes within one thousand feet sell for 27% more than those outside of that radius. This discrepancy has homeowners on golf-side properties aggressively fighting for the survival of golf courses even when they are not financially viable, or even wanted by the community’s majority. This is a to-scale model of our country–sustaining the life of something detrimental to the social or economical wellbeing of an entire community in order to protect investments of a few at the top.
Meanwhile, the only time the instatement of low-income housing depreciates property value (social diversity feeds civic and economic engagement in a community and thus increases surrounding property value!) is when the wealthy, in response to the change in their neighborhood, leave en masse. The actions of the rich are the problem here, not the actions of lower-income families.
“Provide Tax Revenue”
The average 18-hole golf course spans 150-200 acres of needy landscape. “Needy,” because it needs constant watering (about 130,000 gallons of water per day, per course in the US), mowing, and detailed upkeep. These large areas of land lose out on opportunity cost–the result of making a decision that excludes other options. You may gain the benefit that comes from your decision, but you lose the potential for doing other things with your resources. It’s tough to measure because it’s all hypothetical, but when it comes to, for example, Glenway Golf Course in Madison, WI, we can all understand the comparison of neighboring taxable properties. Glenway’s 42 acres pony up a little over $170k to the city each year, but if the land were used for housing or other community resources, the tax revenue would total around $500k. To give you some perspective, Madison is home to 750 acres of golf land.
There’s a tax code called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that is supposed to provide “conservation easements” to landowners who agree to leave their property undeveloped. It is supposed to help preserve forests and farmland. Private golf course owners technically qualify (Tr*mp insists!), and millionaire developers have a funny habit of using these deductions to pay for entire developments of properties adjacent to their course. The cost far exceeds conservation benefits, obviously.
Meanwhile, private golf courses in Seattle are getting valuated super low (like, at a dollar a square foot, compared to neighboring single-family properties that go for 200 times more). This ends up being a giant, immoral tax break!
“Provide green spaces”
You know what they say, the grass is always greener where the NS-54 coated nitrogen has been spread! Gated green knolls aren’t particularly healing for the non-golfer’s mental health, and they’re definitely not helping the environment. A golf course means large-scale destruction or displacement of plant and animal life. Entire habitats are removed–and we mean removed–to the tune of “it’s best if you buy the right soil and bring it in,” as instructed in this handy “How to Build a Golf Green” video! They take the neighborhood that’s there, scrape it down to the subsoil, and start from scratch with a whole new set of rules.
The interests of a golf green and those of a wetland community are antithetical. Golf greens must be designed for water to flow to the edges of the course. If water were to collect anywhere on the course, play would be negatively affected and grass would not grow uniformly. With this design, pesticides and fertilizers are perpetually moving off the course and into surrounding waterways. (We did find a couple of courses who are implementing experimental wetlands where drainage lines and ditches leading out of the property were set. From what we can see, those interior “wetland” spaces are having the same issues natural wetlands experience, when met with a steady supply of herbicides and fertilizers.)
We’ve heard that a coveted golf course hazard is the pond or water feature–spoiler alert: these features do not support a balanced eco-niche. Golf companies traditionally consider all aquatic vegetation “weeds.” The aesthetic ideal is a smell-free, crystal clear pond which hoards disappointed players’ errant golf balls. Pesky plants are actively discouraged by way of herbicides, light-blocking dyes, dredging, a plastic lining between water and soil, the introduction of non-native fish, electric aerators, and lots of plumbing.
Course design experts have demonstrated an excellent understanding of the havoc that fertilizers and grass-clippings can wreak on their would-be pristine ponds. The USGA suggests “reducing fertilization of turf around ponds” in their helpful how-to, “Avoiding the Ugly Pond”. Believe it or not, we’ve found no evidence that the USGA has circulated the memo, “Avoiding the Over-fertilized Wetland.” Abutting marsh, delta, and coastlines all readily absorb toxins from meandering balls, grass clippings AND fertilizers, all day, every day. But at least we don’t have to worry about those fountains clogging.
Does this man mean, like, it’s much nicer to have a golf course than a giant factory pumping charcoal-colored smoke directly into our ozone? I mean, yes, but the nature that came before the golf course was probably doing really well filtering, hosting and sustaining natural life. Sequestering carbon in incredibly efficient carbon sinks like marshes and mangrove swamps, does a lot more for our atmosphere than a golf course ever could. If it ain’t broke...
Sure, most public golf courses use recycled water. Private courses have their own wells, usually wreaking havoc on the nearest aquifer. Here’s a fun fact: the average Palm Springs golf course uses the same amount of water in one day than a family of four uses in five years. By the way, there are over 120 golf courses in Palm Springs alone (and they use up a quarter of Coachella Valley’s water resources). I digress––until golf courses start sending their so-called “purified” water to places like Flint, Michigan, Greg Norman doesn’t have a case.
We touched on the run-off issue earlier. But we’d be remiss not to remind old Greg what runoff has been doing in our oceans. It goes like this: an uptick in nitrogen and phosphorus encourages large blooms of algae along our coasts. Too much algae means blocked sunlight, which means blocked photosynthesis in aquatic plants, coral reefs and seaweeds. No photosynthesis, and these buddies die. Massive marine die-offs create a surge of scavenging bacteria. Excessive bacteria uses up excessive oxygen in the water to respirate as they feed, and also release toxins into the water. This leads to more die-offs (and, from the human perspective, issues like red tide and shellfish poisoning). Today, there are huge regions of hypoxic (oxygen deficient) ocean. Not good!
“Create wildlife habitat”
Sigh. Today’s final lesson will be on the Gullah/Geechee people; remarkably knowledgeable stewards of the east coast wetlands (and the wildlife therein) since the 1700s. This culture will act as a guest speaker on this episode of, “Why Should I, a Human, Care about Wildlife?”
Among the oldest African cultures in America. The Gullah/Geechee people are descendents of formerly enslaved Africans, who either bought their freedom or bought land when white plantation owners left the southeastern coasts during the civil war. Many of them have passed this land down as a shared commodity through generations.
There is a law in South Carolina that allows any heir to Gullah/Geechee land (even if they have a claim of as little as a hundredth of the shared parcel) to force all living on that land to sell the entire parcel to said heir. Often, this law is exploited by descendents who have long left the land and culture–they can make a lot of money by selling the waterfront property to developers. Golf courses in particular have benefited immensely from this legal loophole in Hilton Head and the surrounding marshland. The Gullah/Geechee people are losing numbers, and largely don't have the wealth to compensate for their lack of legal protection.
Meanwhile, the Gullah/Geechee people rely on skills their ancestors brought from coastal West Africa, which they adapted to coastal America during and after their enslavement. These skills not only allow the Gullah/Geechee to survive, but to thrive–as many land-based cultures do when they are empowered to personally tend the resources they need in a place they are free to call home. The Gullah/Geechee engage their landscape in ways such as farming the coastal plain (navigating tides, salinity, sandy soils, etc.), foraging shellfish, cultivating rice, sewing the locally native sweetgrass into baskets, cultivating indigo for its rich dye, and the creation of a rich culinary tradition based on seasonal farmed and foraged foods. And ALL of this generational wisdom is special to salt marshes–they need the salt-marsh habitat to remain fed, housed, and well. If the salt marshes are bulldozed and filled to make room for golf courses and waterfront mansions, the Gullah/Geechee people lose even the possibility of their way of life.
When coastal developers create seawalls, jetties, and raise the land using fill and grading, they are ignoring invaluable ecological wisdom gained by land-centered cultures like the Gullah/Geechee, indigenous Americans, and the contemporary scientific community. All of these construction orders increase the speed of coastal erosion, and amplify the impact of harsh storms and surges. Gullah/Geechee people know to build homes a certain distance from the shore, and have warned newcomers against building right on the shore. This wisdom has been ignored.
Golf course runoff sickens and kills marsh life. When we endanger the life of even one species in a salt marsh, we disrupt that habitat’s ability to self-regulate. The kicker is that the entire salt-marsh habitat acts as a regulator for other major habitats. It filters water that’s bound for the ocean. It provides soil stability and acts as a giant sponge when storms cause flooding. It is our nursery for a huge portion of our global fisheries. What land-centered cultures like the Gullah/Geechee know, is that humans cannot exist outside habitat (contrary to what trending human lifestyles might suggest).
Pollution isn’t the end of a golf course’s detriment to shorelines. The placement of a golf course is always an interruption in the landscape. You can think of waterways as major infrastructure for any habitat, but especially for our coasts. They are essential travel routes for many animals between feeding sites, gathering and nesting sites, and migration stop-offs. They are also the highways for the influx and efflux of nutrients, sediment and water itself. Imagine if a wetland could weigh in when we need an irrigation specialist, or a consultant for community water management.
In places like Hilton Head, a lot of the detriment is mobile–walking, on two legs (or rolling… on four little electric wheels). Golf clubs and courses encourage an influx of coastal litter and gas spillage from members' boats and beach recreation. They encourage more coastal development in an area, crowding out more habitat and more of the original community. And the snowball continues to roll.
So, no. Golf courses don’t create nice habitats for wildlife, or purify water, or provide green spaces useful to anybody but the well-off, able American human. They are destructive to everyone (human and beyond) who capitalism has already edged out. What we really think? Honestly? We need to give golf real estate back to our coastal wetlands. If you’ve got a better idea, lots of people (and habitats) are dying to hear it.