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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1998

Heavy rain during the construction of the Bishop's Bay course carried soil and silt into Lake Mendota. © DNR Photo (South Central Region)
Heavy rain during the construction of the Bishop's Bay course carried soil and silt into Lake Mendota.

© DNR Photo (South Central Region)

Fairways in the rough

Habitat loss and erosion: Are these environmental hazards par for the course when new golf facilities are constructed?

Katherine Esposito

What comes with the turf
Driving the landscape's character
Water hazards || Erosion handicapping
A lighter grip, a gentler swing || The course not taken

Jake Niesen never expected the Town of Vermont Plan Commission to send him packing.

He'd hoped to develop some land he owned in rural Dane County with rolling grassy hills, mature woods and a reborn marsh, a shallow creek on one edge, an imposing brick church next door.

An ideal spot for a golf course, so he thought. Niesen, owner of a Cross Plains landscaping firm and over 100 acres just a beginner's putt away from the Vermont Lutheran Church, stood before town planners about five years ago and pitched just that idea. He had every reason to expect success.

The 18-hole course would follow the land's natural contours, with wetlands filtering runoff before it reached Vermont Creek and only a few acres of trees lost to fairways, claims Niesen. "It would have been just the same ; it would've been even prettier," he says. "When you drive up the road, instead of seeing weeds and stubble, it would be a nice green carpet."

But to Niesen's surprise, the planning commission, in his words, "shot us right down." He and his partners faced a congregation of opposition ranging from the chance of errant golf balls hurtling through church windows tothe possibility of chemicals sullying the brook that drains to Black Earth Creek.

If the course were built, all those golfers would arrive in a parade of cars, remarks Warren Gaskill, a current Vermont plan commissioner. "This has largely been an agricultural area," he says. "A rural golf course just seems kind of bizarre, to my eye."

In occasional showdowns between preservationists and developers, it's usually a 200-home subdivision getting criticized, not a golf course. But a golf course, after all, isn't natural either. It is a contrived Arcadia, with oases of marsh or pockets of trees left standing largely for aesthetic appeal. As courses unfurl over more and more of Wisconsin's countryside, it's prudent to ask just how well their trim eighth-inch turf chimes with the rough-and-tumble world just beyond.

What comes with the turf

Golf, which traces its roots back to 15th century Scotland, is seen as a perfect way to relax amid nature while bonding and competing with coworkers and friends. Statewide, courses are being proposed and built so fast that those paid to monitor construction sites don't even know where some of them are, says Bruce Moore, a water resources engineer in DNR's South Central Region.

The tidal wave of new courses is good news for golf lovers and brings cheery smiles to tourism promoters. But Wisconsin is also known for serene, untrammeled beauty, and highly manicured golf courses smack of suburbia. Traffic may increase. Subdivisions sometimes follow, or are part of the original plan. For those who loved what a parcel looked like, who admired the tall trees, the marshes or just remembered corn that stretched skyward every summer, change can come hard.

Any development, urban infill excepting, can rock the senses of people concerned about habitat preservation. But a golf course, unlike a subdivision, tries to create the impression of harmony with nature. Depending on where and how carefully it is built , a golf course can be an asset or a detriment to the local environment. In some cases, it may have no noticeable impact at all.

Lawrence Woolbright, a biology professor at Siena College in Albany, New York, who is spearheading research into the effects of golf courses on wildlife, has a short answer when asked whether a builder should consider placing a course in a pristine area: "Don't." He urges people to locate their courses in places where the course improves land use, such as old landfills, degraded cropland, and industrial sites. One such course is now being built near the Dane County airport on a closed landfill and cornfields that were wetlands prior to 1940, but it's the only example of a course built on reclaimed land that DNR staff recall.

Voluntary programs, such as the Sanctuary and Signature Programs, sponsored by a New York environmental group, Audubon International (no relation to the National Audubon Society) encourage developers and course managers to abide by certain conservation principles as they plot a new project or update an old one. In some places, such prodding has helped courses reestablish wetlands, mount martin houses and reduce chemical use. Those results garner favorable publicity and lower operating expenses.

Of course, it isn't necessary to rely on Audubon to achieve these kinds of results. In Ozaukee County, Terry Wakefield, the man behind The Bog golf course, relied on a roundtable of local experts, including several from the DNR and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when designing his course.

But lofty principles can't force a determined landowner to leave land untouched. In the end, provided local, state and federal permits are issued, it is the owner's choice whether and how sensitively a golf course is built.

Driving the landscape's character

When the owners of the Teal Lake Lodge east of Hayward decided to carve a golf course out of their 230-acre resort in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest in 1992, they made a big statement.

Resort owners Tim and Prudence Ross wanted to build an 18-hole golf course on land owned by the Ross family for three generations. Nestled on the shore of Teal Lake, the land was thickly wooded with yellow birch and hemlocks, with a mile of river frontage and acres of wetlands. At local permitting hearings many people criticized the plan, but local officials decided to approve it and the project received the required permits. In planning meetings, the Rosses consulted DNR experts who encouraged them to bridge wetlands instead of filling them, among other things.

John Gozdzialski, DNR water programs supervisor from Spooner, recalls the debate. "People were comfortable with the resort; it had been there forever," he says. "But now the character of the country off the lake – rolling, wooded hills – was going to be changed. Now, if you're on the Teal River, enjoying the rights of the public, and look to the Ross property, there's a mature forest that's no longer there. It's mowed grass greens and fairways."

Despite the logging that was necessary to create the course, the Rosses now hope to win a special seal of approval from Audubon International.

Does the finished product shelter wild animals, encourage native plants and keep pesticides and fertilizers out of discharge water? The Rosses believe it will. They are limiting chemical use and retaining areas of old-growth trees and wetlands. One hole near the river is fringed with scattered trees, shrubs and flowers. Did building the course destroy habitat, even as deer and foxes are spied on fairways now? "It certainly did," says Nancy Richardson, director of Audubon International's Signature program, which bestows its award on new courses that abide by a stringent set of environmental principles.

In a larger sense, golf course siting and construction , wherever it occurs, differs little from any other building project. There are good places to build and bad, and a thousand interpretations of each.

"One could argue that in the Northwoods, if you're trying to keep the North the North, with scenic beauty and woods, then a golf course doesn't belong. But that might be unrealistic," says John Gozdzialski. "It gets to be an age-old issue: what's good land use planning?" he adds.

For her part, Prudence Ross says "the areas that have been taken out were mature popple. They were due to be taken out anyway. An infinitely greater number of people were delighted in the way we were doing it than there were complainers."

Preserving wildlife habitat has not been as large an issue in the north as in southern Wisconsin, but that is changing.

As expensive lakeshore homes and new courses are built on undeveloped northern land, animals that can't live near open spaces or humans move or perish.

Fairway at Bishop's Bay.
Developers should strive to improve land use by building golf courses on old landfills, degraded cropland, and industrial sites. Good habitat is no place for a fairway!

© John Henebry

In southern California, new housing and golf course construction has been implicated in the decline of the peninsular bighorn sheep, recently listed as federally endangered.

While no species is immediately threatened by such development in Wisconsin, one observer is not pacified. The Ross course is "another piece of the puzzle, and it's a permanent opening, maintained in a non-natural state," says Sawyer County wildlife manager Sam Moore.

In more populous areas, where new subdivisions and stores seem almost preordained, shoulders are shrugged when new golf courses are mentioned. But not all onlookers accept that logic.

"My big concern is not so much with management after they're built, but where golf courses are built in the first place," says Randy Hoffman, a conservation biologist with DNR's South Central Region." It's always a situation of comparing to something else that may not be as good. If wetlands and forests are splintered to make room for a golf course, Hoffman continues, "then it's going to be a net loss rather than an improvement. The landscape may not be able to recover, no matter how environmentally friendly the operation."

Erosion handicapping

A golf course was under construction in Waunakee when the rains came. Aicardo Roa checked to see if water flowing across the bare, saturated soil was reaching nearby Six Mile Creek, and it was. But there was a big difference between this site and what has happened at other places when the deluge hit and the waters ran brown. At Waunakee, by the time runoff entered the creek, it was virtually clear. The main reason? A completely new approach to erosion control.

Outside of Dane County, where Roa works as an urban conservationist, state erosion regulations require that anyone disturbing over five acres of land obtain a stormwater discharge permit. The applicant attests that an erosion control plan has already been developed and will be implemented. The Department of Natural Resources usually does not ask to see the plan. If the plan turns out to be inadequate, it is commonly discovered only after the erosion has occurred.

But within Dane County, many municipalities are subject to much stricter rules that limit how much soil can wash off newly opened land. An engineer working for the developer takes that information and works backwards, using a formula called the Universal Soil Loss Equation, to determine what measures must be in place to prevent those limits from being exceeded. Then the county reviews – and sometimes rejects – their plan.

While the DNR may strongly recommend certain steps, Dane County can require them, such as insisting that builders only grade portions of the site at any one time, a method called phasing.

In sensitive areas near wetlands, lakes, or rivers, the amount of soil loss allowable under Dane County's ordinance is five to ten times less than what can erode from similar sites elsewhere, says Roa. If the county rules had been in place during the Bishop's Bay episode, Roa contends, far less soil would have washed into Lake Mendota.

Jim Bertolacini, a DNR Wastewater Specialist, calls the county methods "innovative."

Roa and others will be traveling to Europe in September to talk at a conference on nonpoint pollution. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has expressed interest in the county's approach. There's no returning to the old ways, he says.

"The only way to scrutinize things well is through a calculation," Roa says. "Otherwise, it's your word against mine."

Water hazards

People assume that golf courses, with their expanses of lush, Irish green grass, achieve that look through heavy doses of insecticides, fungicides, and fertilizers, and that chemicals find their ways into streams and groundwater. In Wisconsin, no herbicides nor insecticides traceable to golf courses have been detected in groundwater, though herbicides have been found in surface waters downstream of golf courses, says Jim Vandenbrook, a groundwater program supervisor with the state Department of Agriculture. Those detections were below current health standards, he says.

With the schooling and certification of many superintendents and the price of chemicals, course managers say less is used today than in the past. Once turf is established and runoff is directed to specially crafted ponds or wetlands, few chances remain for tainted water to leave the course. "It's more of a science than it used to be," says Ed Bergman, of the Agriculture Department.

But before that grass has grown, a heavy rainfall can spell trouble. Compared with any other sport, a golf course requires enormously more land, typically up to 200 acres. Just the act of grading and shaping that land can expose the ground to the elements like a raw wound, ready to hemorrhage soil at the first rainstorm.

Erosion during golf course construction can damage the flora and fauna of lakes and streams as much as any other building projects, and while some developers do a good job of controlling it, others have exasperated regulators by their apparent indifference.

"It's your job as a developer to be aware of environmental laws," says Tim Coughlin, an enforcement specialist with DNR's South Central Region. "Some developers do not appear to be aware of the law."

Coughlin's frustration is shared by others in his office. Controlling runoff from acre after acre of bare soil has often been given back-burner status by developers, and areas adjacent to lakes and streams have run brown – "like the coffee in my cup," Coughlin says – after a storm.

DNR often find that builders aren't even prepared for even milder rains. Some haven't completed required erosion control plans before requesting construction permits ; others fail to carry out the plan as written, says Bruce Moore.

One project along the north shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, called Bishop's Bay, grabbed the headlines in 1993 after the contractor didn't fully install promised erosion controls, including sediment ponds. During a series of torrential summer storms, one pond overflowed and dirty water streamed into the lake. A neighbor called the DNR, which investigated and sought damages under the state's Public Nuisance Statute.

Defendants named in a court stipulation agreed to comply with the erosion controls and complete certain other measures. The country club agreed to pay $20,000 to establish a northern pike rearing pond, to benefit Lake Mendota.

That was admittedly a bad construction year, Coughlin says. It was the year of the floods, with basements and backyards everywhere turned into temporary wading pools. However, officials from the Dane County Land Conservation Department, which passed strict erosion control regulations the next year, agree that the company's plan was not implemented.

Erosion control was a contentious issue on another golf course under construction a few years later, in the city of Jefferson. Stormwater from the Meadow Springs course flowed into the Rock River. Course developers were cited for failing to obtain a permit to discharge stormwater from a construction site and failure to develop and implement an erosion control plan. In addition to fines, the developer made a $18,652 payment to the DNR for a future fishway on the Rock River.

The two scenarios illustrate contradictions inherent in nonpoint pollution control: There is theory, and then there is practice. Placing hay bales and silt fences strategically, seeding grass promptly, and opening up the earth in phases, to limit the amount of bare soil exposed at any time, sound reasonable. However, when confronted with real construction schedules and capricious weather, even well-intentioned contractors may find erosion control turning into their biggest headache.

A lighter grip, a gentler swing

At first blush, edging the historic 2,500-acre Cedarburg Bog, home to endangered prairie orchids and the pink moccasin flower, with a golf course might seem inappropriate. To Jim Reinartz, it still is. To Joanne Kline, however, the road that led to the design and construction of The Bog serves as a lesson in compromise and cooperation, and left her pleasantly surprised.

"When we first found out about the proposal to put the course next to the Bog, the DNR staff were concerned. At the time, golf course developers had a pretty bad reputation," says Kline, a wetland and water specialist with DNR's Southeast Region. A meeting was held of DNR staff and scientists, including Reinartz, a wetlands ecologist from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's field station located on the bog's southwest corner. The group talked with Terry Wakefield, who had proposed the course for 300 acres of former cornfields.

"That was probably the best thing we did," Kline says. "[Wakefield] wanted to get the course done as soon as possible, with as few problems as possible with the regulations."

Wakefield, a Mequon resident, agrees. "It's a very environmentally sensitive piece of property, which we understood from day one," he says. To keep any runoff from reaching groundwater, drains were built underneath tees and greens to channel water into specially created wetlands, which supplemented existing wetlands. To allay concerns aired by Jim Reinartz and others that course irrigation would deplete groundwater stocks, Wakefield voluntarily drilled a deeper well.

Wakefield and course superintendent, Pat Shaw, also are trying to use as little pesticide and fertilizer as possible, frequently sending soil samples to the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Facility near Madison for analysis, before deciding how to treat a fungus or pest outbreak. "We spend more money testing than we do actually applying pesticides," Shaw says.

The spirit of conciliation that threaded the discussions over The Bog is echoed in those taking place over a 27-hole , 200-acre course proposed along the Sugar River, south of Madison near Verona. In early spring, the developer took state and county conservationists on a site tour, identifying their concerns before seeking approvals. The company also has hired an environmental consultant to help with design and permitting.

Careful siting, sensitive design, and patience in construction and operation go a long way toward allowing a golf course to tread lightly in its neighborhood. Sometimes, however, the best plan may be no plan at all.

Jake Niesen's old hay and wheat fields are now enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a 10-year set-aside which pays him not to farm. He shoots over to Middleton when he wants to golf. And he really isn't complaining. Really.

"The kids do a lot of hunting down there, and they goof around with their ATVs," Niesen says. "I'd like to leave it just the way it is. It's not hurting anybody. It's nice and quiet and pretty down there."

The course not taken

Two starkly different scenarios were in store for the spongy land bordering Whittlesey Creek, which drains into Chequamegon Bay, just two miles west of the city of Ashland.

One script: development; the other: 540 acres of new national wildlife refuge, adjacent to established parks and wetlands. Development would involve filling nearshore wetlands to build an 18-hole golf course, with various buildings likely to follow. The refuge alternative would concede the area's unique history as prime trout and salmon spawning waters, and restore it to its former glory.

"We had a choice to go in one direction or another," says Tom Busiahn, a fisheries biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Ashland office. "One direction was a golf course, and it would have been a poor golf course because of the nature of the land."

"We were proposing another direction," he continues. "to bring the land back to a healthy state and benefit the stream as a result."

Aerial photographs from the summer of 1997 make Busiahn's point. The stream's inky clarity is cleft by a ribbon of silt-laden water the color of caramel, flowing northeast into Chequamegon Bay. Years ago, the upwellings of spring water and natural gravel beds provided perfect spawning grounds for coaster brook trout. Large catches were reported in the Ashland Daily Press in the late 1800s. Those have virtually been eliminated due to sedimentation, but the stream's consistently cold temperatures still support huge numbers of salmon. In fact, one-third of the region's coho salmon spawn in Whittlesey Creek, warranting the stream's listing as an Outstanding Resource Water.

It wasn't just the erosion from on-again, off-again golf course that was degrading the trout beds. Runoff from farm fields, urban development, and scouring along bridges over the creek hurt too. But it was the very real chance that the Ondassogami Links golf course would finally be built at the intersection of Highways 2 and 13, at the mouth of Whittlesey Creek, that got the Fish and Wildlife Service excited.

The golf course had been first proposed in 1989. State and federal permits were acquired, but the financing fell apart after some fields were graded and a few ponds dug. Meanwhile, stricter state wetlands regulations were passed. When the developers returned in 1997 to continue the idle project, they were told that their old permits had expired. It became apparent to all agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that the types of wetlands and presence of several endangered plant and animal species would likely preclude issuing new permits. In March, 1997, the Bayfield County Zoning committee tabled the proposal, pending the developers' requests for more approvals.

The developers had said they would place buffers between the course and the creek, and limit chemical use, says Duane Lahti, DNR water regulation specialist in Brule. But the high water table and natural springs caused grave concerns about possible groundwater pollution, he says. "I'm not opposed to golf course development, but this is not a site that's accommodating," Lahti says.

Busiahn has another theory why the plan didn't fly this time around: an alternative was all ready to go. "It's quite likely the county would have issued the permits if there was not an idea for the use of the land," he says.

Now all that is needed to begin acquiring the land for the Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge is money. The refuge has been federally approved but not established until $650,000 is authorized or raised. For more information, contact Maureen Gallagher at the USFWS, (715) 682-6185.

Katherine Esposito is a magazine staff writer in Madison.