Golf – problem or opportunity?
By Caroline Jacobsson, Wed, 19/06/2013 - 20:52
On Tuesday 18 June 2013 the golf industry took the floor at the BirdLife World Congress in Ottawa, Canada to discuss the case of sustainable golf with a focus on nature, communities and business development. There are over 33,000 golf courses in over 200 countries around the world, out of which half are in the US and Canada and most new projects are driven connected to the tourism industry. Chaired by Mr Jonathan Smith, Chief Executive of GEO (Golf Environment Organization), the event started by putting the issue on the table – what are the biodiversity problems and opportunities associated with the golf industry? Under the heading Golf on One Planet, Jonathan Smith stated that the golf industry recognises that the planet is under pressure, not least in terms of land and water use – two imperative parts of golf course development. In addition, the majority of golf courses use pesticides and fertilisers, which can, if not used extremely carefully, pose risks to the environment and biodiversity. Jonathan went on to highlight that preserving green space; creating buffers around ecological hotspots; protecting habitats; and connecting people with nature were some of the ways that golf courses can serve the environment and the local community. With that backdrop the event investigated the industry’s work to date towards sustainability. Steve Isaac representing The R&A, and Kimberly Erusha from the US Golf Association, golf’s governing bodies, followed in a double act talking about turfgrass and other recreational activities that golf courses can be used for, such as walking, horse-riding and cycling. In a project with RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), a guidance was developed to help golf courses to support birds and biodiversity. A similar guide had been produced in the US. In a case study from the Royal Birkdale golf course in the UK declining species find a safe have on a golf course situated in a Natura 2000 site (EU protected area for biodiversity). Another example comes from Pasatiempo Golf Course in California, USA where turfgrass has been reduced by 20%, which saves both the water supply and money. At the Golf National golf course outside Paris, France, building material was recycled to become the base of the course developed on arable land bringing native species into an otherwise biologically poor landscape of intensive farming. At an old quarry site in Mainz, Germany a golf course development project has provided a new home for a variety of plant and animal species. They also drew attention to the way industry standards for golf development, course management and tournaments have been collaboratively developed in recent years. GEO has worked to get the approval of a new ecolabel for the golf industry, GEO Certified™. These standards have a wide scope; covering nature, energy, water, supply chain, pollution and community. The standards and ecolabel are underpinned by third party verification and transparent reporting – in line with the international ISEAL Codes of Best Practice. In the discussion that followed, which was chaired by Ariel Brunner; Head of EU Policy at BirdLife Europe, serious concerns were raised by several participants in the large audience that had gathered for the event. Interventions pointed out the widespread damage being caused by the insensitive development of golf courses at the expense of native vegetation and natural habitats. Similar concerns have been raised about the impact of the development of too many golf courses in water stressed regions, such as Cyprus or South Africa. Several BirdLife Partners are already engaged with the golf industry, as in the case with RSPB. David Howell from SEO (BirdLife in Spain) brought up the image problem that the industry is facing, mainly caused by political factors. BirdLife Spain’s answer has been to take developers to court to halt illegal projects. “The problem lies in the politics”, he stated and continued that “A solution for the sport may be to engage active front liners, such as sport stars, to speak up for the need of sustainability and better governance”. In the Netherlands there are several cases of cooperation between the golf industry and BirdLife to develop biodiversity locally. Combining the game of golf with the enjoyment of wildlife is a new way for BirdLife to reach out to new audience and for the industry to offer a richer experience to sportsmen and amateurs. The event audience also suggested that by taking a firm stand saying that it will not arrange a tournament in a location that does not meet recognised criteria or standards might be an efficient way of moving change. The decision making powers behind the development and establishment of golf courses also came up in the discussions and it was suggested by several BirdLife Partners that it is important to gather all stakeholders around the table right at the start, rather than having an individual body, such as the tourism ministry to decide without consultation. Jonathan Smith commented “Golf course development is largely driven by tourism ministries in many places of the world. There is a real opportunity for top level golf development policies to be conceived together with local stakeholders, to ensure that the right projects are built in the right way in the right places, with real long term environmental and community benefits”. Marcus Kohler, Senior Programme Manager for the Flyways Programme at BirdLife International noted that the golf industry is still missing opportunities by not yet fully embracing the environment, and in particular the naturalisation of courses. He appealed to golf stakeholder and golfers themselves to unite the love of the outdoors and the love of the game by bringing wildlife to the fore. “Make the wildlife experience part of the golf experience” he summed up.