In Search of the Eco-Friendly Golf Course

Here’s a fun experiment: go to your favorite deep-green environmentalist friend and say the phrase “sustainable golf course.” You’re likely to be subjected to at least half an hour of explanations about why golf is inherently unsustainable. Or maybe you’re the deep-greenie questioning the existence of the mythic green golf course–you’ve probably heard references in passing to such a creature, but you don’t really believe it exists. After catching wind of a golf course in Panama that is pushing its sustainability as a main selling point, I decided that it was worth finding.

The Isla Viveros Resort’s golf course, scheduled to be completed in 2011, claims that its green-ness will be achieved due to a number of initiatives: Viveros will plant a new tree every time one is cut down to make room for the golf course, run-off from daily watering will go to a developed water treatment plant before being reused, and newly-installed lakes will prevent pesticides from draining into local waterways.
These initiatives are, to be sure, world’s ahead of what some golf courses are doing. But are they enough? If Viveros truly wants to call itself sustainable, it should stop using synthetic pesticides altogether. This isn’t impossible–the Vineyard Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, MA has built a thriving business using disease-resistant turf and organic pesticides.
Furthermore, Viveros has to replant the same species of trees that it removes. The resort is right when it says that trees re-grow quickly in tropical environments, but if the same trees aren’t replanted, Viveros risks disturbing the local ecosystem.
In a water-poor world, so-called sustainable golf courses must also make sure to limit water use on the course. That means using drought-tolerant turf species, recycling grey water from surrounding golf facilities, and scheduling well-timed and target irrigation.
As you may have surmised, Viveros can never be truly sustainable even if it follows these recommendations. But development is inevitable, and golf fans aren’t likely to give up their game. Eric Antebi, National Spokesperson for the Sierra Club, put it best: “Development is a fact of life.The question is, can you have smarter development? There are appropriate and inappropriate places to put roads and buildings – and there are good and bad places to put golf courses. Even the best-run golf course in an inappropriate place is a bad idea.”
Ed: A spokesperson from Isla Viveros e-mailed us to say that each plant and tree that is displaced during the golf course construction has been moved to a nursery until it can be replanted at another location on the island, removing many of the concerns Ariel raised around replanting and ecosystem disruption. We editors are pleasantly surprised (and mildly doubtful) about the feasibility of uprooting of thousands of plants, nursing them to health in what must be enormous nurseries, and then replanting them! This seems like a wildly expensive undertaking, so we welcome comments from the Isla Viveros team in the comments section to explain how you’re able to make this happen in a truly sustainable way. If it’s for real, that’s pretty darn remarkable!

8 responses

  1. Here’s another twist: some golf courses are improving their green credentials through partnerships with environmental organizations. For instance, Marriott is working to transform all of its golf courses into certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries.

  2. I’m happy to see some effort going into this. I’m not a big golfer, but I do enjoy it once in a while and I don’t see why it *has* to be as environmentally troubling as it is – after all, it amounts to a walk in a nice park, while hitting a ball.
    I think golfers need to change their expectations about exactly how “pristine” and “perfect” a golf course needs to be. For example, what’s wrong with a non-grass course in Arizona?
    This particular course is on a small island in ocean water, where I doubt fresh water is abundant (though maybe they can keep rainwater all year?), plus by the look of the houses they are building, large bloated luxury seems to be the expectation. I’ve got no problem with occasional luxury, but I’d expect things to be a little more modest to really earn the word “sustainable”.
    Anyway, as you say, development is inevitable and these guys do seem to be taking a smarter approach, even if it’s not perfect.

  3. I’m not sure what the point of transplanting all those trees really is. If you’re going to build a golf course on a small island, you’re going to irreparably change it. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing – as Nick mentioned above, a golf course at its best is really a nice park. What I’m more interested in is – what are they using as grass? How will it be irrigated? Will they re-plant these native trees in a manner that works with the golf course and vice versa? Perhaps employing principals of permaculture?

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