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US DEBATE ON UNNATURAL HAZARDS


The shady, lush 5th hole at Capital Hills is 245 yards along a meandering stream to a small green hugged by hardwoods. But golf course Superintendent Scott Gallup says the hazard isn't the water, it's across town in the state Capitol. That's where debate is underway to, potentially, greatly reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that keep golf courses unnaturally perfect.

The debate is being watched nationally by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America based in Kansas that issued an alert on its Internet site. The group fears that if the bills become law in New York a trendy environmental battle might be sparked nationwide.

"The end result is that if you ban pesticides, the course will suffer," said Carrie Riordan of the golf superintendents group. "It could set a precedent for other states and we've seen this before when something becomes a trendy issue."

The movement comes as the number of golf courses is growing. Last year, a record 509 new courses opened nationwide. Among them were 21 in New York, tied for sixth with Arizona, according to the National Golf Foundation. In New York, 46 more courses are being built. They could face any of nearly two dozen bills in Albany that would regulate pesticides on public property including municipal courses. They include a ban of pesticides on public property, mandatory 48-hour notice to neighbors before spraying, and greater use of "integrated pest management." That includes training "scouts" to closely analyze pest and weed problems to pick the least toxic course on small trouble spots to avoid widespread spraying.

Back on the 5th hole, Gallup said he knows what a pesticide ban would mean. The small green would be browned by plodding golfers and root disease in the damp area. He said the green would eventually be closed, and demand isn't high for a 17-hole golf course. For the cash-strapped city, brown greens and fairways would mean a hit on $500,000 a year in revenue. Whether golf courses are an overly controlled polluter disguised as nature, or a positive force for nature is as debatable as club selection on a Par 3.

"I'm sure there are studies, but I don't think anyone needs them because golf courses are green and weed-free," said state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester County Democrat who heads the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee. "It's a huge problem."

"Golf courses are one important place we can limit the amount of pesticides," said Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates. "They cover vast areas and some are still addicted to pesticides."

"Golf is easy to attack," said Jeff Bollig of the golf superintendents group. "It's perceived as middle-aged guys in bad clothes driving Cadillacs ... and it's also an election year." Cornell Assistant Professor Frank Rossi said 75 percent of money spent on turf management is used at home; 6 percent is spent on golf courses.

"We should always be getting people to use less stuff," said Rossi, who has done turf research commissioned by the U.S. Golf Association. "Yet we do it in an emotional argument. It scares people into thinking that something will do something to them" like cancer, he said. He said science doesn't support the scare tactic.

Brodsky says the closer look at golf courses is warranted and marks a new step for the state. For decades the state focused on "point-source pollution" from a single source like an industrial pipe into a river. Pollution from treatments on hundreds of golf courses and thousands of lawns, he said, can be tougher to tackle but just as important in protecting the environment.

"There is still contamination of the environment," said state Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone. But, "I think golf courses have learned a lot about the use of pesticides. They've gotten a lot better and look at more natural alternatives." Gone, he said, are the days when Canada Geese were killed by a granual pesticide, which is now banned. But Stone said that however desirable a ban on pesticides might be, science probably couldn't support it.

In place of these techniques and blanket spraying is integrated pest management - known as IPM in the trade. The practice is embraced by both sides and Brodsky said encouraging it is the cornerstone of those bills in Albany. The question is whether, or how much, pesticides need to be part of it.

"Our position is you can maintain the quality you want," said Brodsky, a golfer since he was a child. "A lot of this is bad habits dying hard, not the choice between a putting green and a sand green."

Kimberly Erusha of the U.S. Golf Association said the approach is already common on courses nationwide. One of them is Stadium Golf Club in Schenectady. Superintendent Rich Stigberg has trained his staff to find grubs, beetles, cut worms and more. Then they determine the least toxic course and apply it, immediately, to the isolated problem before it spreads.

"Everybody out there, we're trying very hard to be as environmentally conscious as we can," said Stigberg. "I think it's completely workable," said Bill Sanok, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in Suffolk County, of further reductions in pesticides. There, one of the first municipalities in the country is drastically phasing out pesticides on its county golf courses beginning this spring. He said, however, golfers will have to realize they won't be playing manicured courses like on TV. "America buys with it's eyes. But I think it will work."