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Trees Vs. Tees : PEBBLE BEACH IS A GOLFER’S PARADISE--SEVEN COURSES, OCEAN VIEWS AND THE SHELTER OF MONTEREY PINES. IT’S THE LAST THAT’S CAUSED TROUBLE IN PARADISE--FOR THE FIRST TIME, THE PEBBLE BEACH ANTHEM IS NO MORE GOLF.

John Horn is entertainment writer for the Associated Press in Los Angeles

The tee for what will be the 11th hole of Pebble Beach’s Forest Course, a 380-yard par-4, is set high atop a ridge overlooking a thick stand of Monterey pine. Golfers standing on the elevated launch pad will have one way to play the hole correctly--down the middle of the fairway, favoring the left side--and many ways to play it wrong. They can try to cut the dogleg too sharply left and lose the ball in the trees, push their drive right, through the fairway and into a cavernous bunker, or skull it short, so that their brand new Titleists, Ultras and Top-Flites will be swallowed by a gully often churning with storm runoff.

Standing anywhere near the boundaries for this spectacular hole in the middle of the Del Monte Forest, it’s easy to imagine a lot of things going wrong. Some shots might go right, too. Imagine it any way you want--that’s the only way to play the course right now: with your mind, not your clubs. The 11th hole, as well as the 17 other Forest Course holes, the clubhouse, driving range, maintenance yard and parking lot, are presently covered with trees, some 38,000 Monterey pine, Bishop pine and California live oak in all. Below the fragrant canopy of evergreens and oaks sits a thick undergrowth of huckleberry, shaggy-barked manzanita, California maidenhair, poison oak, grass and duff. A Cooper’s hawk may occasionally fly above the small pockets of coyote thistle, star tulip and sun cups.

Depending on distinctly different viewpoints, it’s either a pristine woodland that should remain untouched or the perfect location for a world-class golf course.

As part of the Pebble Beach Company’s ambitious development plans, chain saws and earthmovers could descend on the thousands of Monterey pines, many nearly a century old and some more than 80 feet tall, in early 1997. About 142 acres of native timber and flora would be swept aside to make room for the course, with 92 acres left alone. Bulldozers, tractors and dump trucks would rearrange about 300,000 cubic yards of the sandy soil, sculpting the hilly terrain into immaculate trees, rolling fairways and slick greens.

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Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio (he made Newport’s Pelican Hill Golf Club), the Forest Course could become one of the must-play courses in the Monterey peninsula, already the nation’s golf capital with seven 18-hole layouts, including the championship sites Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point, Spanish Bay and Poppy Hills. It’s a safe bet, too, that the Forest Course will become part of the AT&T; Pebble Beach pro-am tournament, among the most distinguished stops on the PGA tour.

“The golf course will add another perspective to the area,” says Ted Horton, the vice president of resource management for the Pebble Beach Company. “Pebble Beach is a links course on the ocean. This is a pure forest course. It will be a real manly golf course, a great place to play.”

Like other optimistic Pebble Beach Company executives, Horton may be totaling his score card before he’s sunk a tricky 20-foot downhill putt. In an unusual display of environmentalism, several Pebble Beach residents--including some living near golf courses and some very good golfers themselves--have joined forces to block the course’s construction.

Friends of the Forest, a home-grown amalgam of some 50 ecology-come-lately millionaires and longtime middle-class conservationists, are arguing that for all the green, golf courses actually leave the local ecosystem in the red. Never too far from the drone of golf carts and cursing hackers, these opponents are collectively expressing something never heard before on 17 Mile Drive: No more golf.

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Although its name is synonymous with golf, Pebble Beach is far more than the most famous American course open to the public. It’s a municipality of about 6,000 residents, a 5,300-acre gated forest sprinkled with million-dollar estates, many family homes costing $500,000 and less, and hundreds of blacktailed deer. Green is the predominant color of the landscape, white of the inhabitants.

While many residents commute to Carmel and Monterey, most are rich and retired--a busy day is golf in the morning and cocktails in the afternoon. Bordered by Pacific Grove to the north, Monterey to the East and Carmel to the South, Pebble Beach is a civic anomaly: a privately managed town. The Pebble Beach Company maintains the roads, develops and sells real estate, approves home-building plans and paint schemes and even prunes the trees. It also runs two resort hotels--the Lodge at Pebble Beach and the Inn at Spanish Bay--two restaurants, 11 stores, a pitch-and-putt and three other top-flight golf courses, The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Monterey’s Old Del Monte.

In the last five years, the Pebble Beach Company has passed through three owners’ hands, and only recently has the enterprise regained its balance. First, former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis sold Pebble Beach to Japanese tycoon Minoru Isutani for about $841 million. Following a disastrous bid to hawk Pebble Beach memberships for $750,000 apiece, Isutani sold out less than two years later at a loss of about $341 million. Under the new ownership of Japan’s Taiheiyo Club Inc. and Sumitomo Credit Service Ltd., the company has reversed its precipitous public relations plunge. Pebble Beach executives now volunteer in a variety of community organizations, the company gives generously to charity and has labored to become one of the nation’s most environmentally conscious golf course operators.

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The company, among Monterey County’s largest taxpayers, says it pays $140,000 of annual property taxes on the Forest Course land, just off the Highway 1 gate to Seventeen Mile Drive. For a debt-laden owner anxious to drum up new cash flow, the land is a financial black hole--it just sucks money.

“This is the last large developable space,” says Mark Stilwell, the company’s vice president for real estate and its general counsel. “We have a lot of debt on the property, and like a good business owner, we want to reduce the debt.” A land-use plan approved by the state Coastal Commission in 1984 allows the company to seek to build up to 889 homes. Instead, the company said in 1992 that it wanted to develop 60% fewer lots--a total of 350 in 16 subdivisions throughout the forest--in exchange for the rights to build the course. It’s a good trade-off, Stilwell says, especially since the company will also donate an undeveloped 135-acre forest parcel to the city of Monterey if the Forest Course is approved. As part of the new development, the company has pledged that 300 acres of Monterey pine forest inside a tract called Huckleberry Hill will be preserved forever.

“They’re a lot of people who don’t want to see anything happen to this property,” concedes Stilwell, whose wife, Susan, has lived in the area for more than 30 years. “But you can’t do any development without cutting down trees.”

The Pebble Beach Company, as required by the county, would replant an equal number of trees on or near the course, with an estimated 17,400 mature Monterey pines to be felled and tens of thousands more trees cut down. To protect the wild and endangered Hickman’s onion, the company has rerouted one hole and established a small onion preserve inside the course boundaries.

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“There are a lot of wonderful features to the land, and we have been able to route the golf course along the topography,” says Fazio, one of the most honored golf architects working. He will preserve as many quality trees as possible, he says, but many must come down. “I think that God put the trees here to be used--to be enjoyed, and to be replanted.”

These are not just any trees, though. The Forest Course would specifically affect one of the world’s largest remaining native stands of the imperiled Monterey pine.

“Golf courses are green graveyards,” says David Dilworth, a computer software maker and one of the staunchest Forest Course opponents. The longtime environmentalist’s rented house stands just outside the Pebble Beach gates. It serves as, among other things, a research library for the course’s foes: For nearly every tree set to become sawdust, Dilworth can produce some study, some document, showing why it should remain in the ground.

Knee-deep in a patch of rattlesnake grass and nasturtiums overlooking the treetops, Dilworth says, “From where we stand now, you’ll be able to see fairways. I’ve literally put my life on hold to make sure the forest is turned into a preserve.”

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If Dilworth is the opposition’s human war room, Robert Green is its attache. Tooling down Highway 1 near Carmel in a new dark blue BMW convertible, he navigates sweeping turns while his wife, Delia, talks on a cellular phone. Their daughter, Marianna, a gifted high school senior, is enrolled at a Yale summer program and desperately needs help: What are the major differences between Aristotle’s “The Politics” and Plato’s “Republic”? With a copy of Bertrand Russell in one hand, a vintage Encyclopedia Britannica in the other and the phone wedged against her ear, Delia offers some long-distance philosophy pointers.

A Clio-winning commercial director and producer, Green is a former 10-handicapper who splits his time between the offices of his production company in Santa Monica and Pebble Beach. He is also the Pebble Beach Company’s worst public relations nightmare: an eloquent, reasonable tree-hugger. Like many members of Friends of the Forest, Green is hardly an environmental extremist opposed to any growth besides yogurt. He even attended a 1987 party the Pebble Beach Company threw for supporters of the Links at Spanish Bay. These days however, he’s leading the fight against the Forest Course. It’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to this particular controversy, Green is the obligatory limousine liberal. Or would be, except his 1972 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is in the shop.

Green’s house is a strong pitching wedge from the second fairway of Cypress Point, among the nation’s most exclusive golf country clubs (he’s not a member). There are about 100 Monterey pine trees on the 1 1/2 acres around Green’s beautifully landscaped 1953 Cape Cod house, and in the morning they are shrouded in fog, the mist collecting in the pinus radiata needles and dripping to the ground below in a miniature rain shower.

“I think in some ways I am typical of people who live here,” Green says later, sipping tea while strolling his grounds. “People here want to feel they’ve made it to paradise--that they have a corner of it--and they want to be left alone.” Indeed, Green kept a low profile for much of his 16 years as a Pebble Beach resident. As for making waves, they all came from the wake of his 27-foot sailboat.

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It was an old elm tree that finally changed his quiet civic life.

Sam Morse, the original Pebble Beach developer, planted the “Welcoming Tree” about 80 years ago. The sprawling elm stood not far from the Highway 1 entrance into 17 Mile Drive; Morse supervised its pruning personally. To improve an intersection, a housing developer had it felled in 1994 without opposition from the Pebble Beach Company, which agreed the tree made the intersection dangerous. Since it was not a native tree, no permits were needed for its destruction--the intersection is now barren.

“If it hadn’t been for that tree, I’d probably still be sitting here, thinking the company was doing fine. But this is how cities like Pebble Beach become cities like San Jose,” Green says. Green wrote an angry op-ed piece about the tree for the local newspaper, the Carmel Pine Cone, saying ". . . the forest as we know it will not survive this mindless kind of bungling.” Emboldened by the positive response, he started organizing Friends of the Forest, targeting the Forest Course.

Friends of the Forest occasionally makes a bold statement, like the TV commercial it ran during this year’s Pebble Beach tournament, but unlike its distant Earth First! cousins, members look as if they could be developers, not environmentalists. Penny Loafers, not Birkenstocks. For all their mild-mannered appearances, however, Friends of the Forest has put the Pebble Beach Company on the defensive.

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Its best shot so far came during the AT&T; tournament at Pebble Beach, when an ad Green produced was broadcast 30 times locally. The 30-second TV commercial showed trees vanishing from the forest. “Day by day our forest is dying,” the commercial’s solemn narrator said over the background sound of a heartbeat that eventually flat-lines.

The commercial’s trees were then removed by a trick of computer effects. Yet the trees are in fact disappearing, and no computer can make them come back.

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If you don’t look closely, you can’t see it anywhere in the Del Monte Forest, what Pebble Beach locals call the stretch of land encircled by 17 Mile Drive and Highway 68. With a trained eye and some help, it’s easier to spot: dead branches and bleeding wounds oozing so much resin the Monterey pines look as if they have been strafed with buckshot and are dying in slow motion. Hundreds of trees in the peninsula are suffering from pitch canker, a presently incurable and little-understood fungus that beetles spread from tree to doomed tree, killing otherwise healthy conifers from the top down, usually in five years or less. First discovered in Santa Cruz County in 1986 in a non-native stand of Monterey pine, the fungus had spread by 1992 to Mendocino County to the north and San Diego to the south and now has infested Douglas fir and Bishop pine trees as well. California Christmas tree farms have been infected, and one L.A. grower lost 3,000 trees recently.

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“I’m a wreck about what’s going on,” Green says in the shade of one of his Monterey pines that measures more than 100 feet tall. A healthy pine, it looks like a giant broccoli stalk, its crown full of green needle clusters and its trunk mostly bare. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose them all.”

His worst fears may soon be realized. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve seen and we don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” says Bill Libby, a UC Berkeley forestry professor specializing in Monterey pines. He estimates 85% of the peninsula’s pines will soon be killed by pitch canker whether the course is built or not.

A little more than 10,000 years ago, a nearly contiguous Monterey pine forest blanketed the California coast from Marin to Los Angeles County. Rising temperatures, drier weather and human encroachment have left just three native stands of Monterey pine in the United States--in Cambria, the Monterey Peninsula and a small area near Santa Cruz called Anu Nueva. Only a quarter of the 12,000 acres of Monterey pine once covering the peninsula remain standing.

To build the Forest Course and develop the 350 home sites, the Pebble Beach Company will have to fell approximately 10% of the remaining natural forest stands in the Monterey peninsula and 25% of the remaining native Monterey pine forest inside Pebble Beach. It’s not just Pebble Beach’s trees that are at stake.

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In tree farms around the globe, the tree is among the most widely planted pine species in the world, with 7 million acres grown for paper, pulp and soft wood. Plant geneticists fear that pitch canker can only be stopped by the trees themselves--that somewhere in the three remaining native California stands grows a tree or group of trees whose DNA repels the fungus like a slicker repels rain. If the forest is axed to make room for the Forest Course, the odds of finding that Darwinian fittest would be reduced dramatically, since many of the commercially planted trees are genetically identical. “But keeping those trees [inside the Forest Course property] is no guarantee of saving the forest,” Libby says.

Due partially to pitch canker, the California Native Plant Society considers the Monterey pine endangered, and hopes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the ultimate power in classifying species, will agree. But the company says the pitch canker threat is overstated. “That disease gets a lot of attention, but there are a lot of diseases in the forest,” says Eric Love, the company’s director of forestry. “I don’t believe pitch canker will destroy the forest as we know it. If you ask me if the Monterey pine is endangered, my answer is no.”

“We have the largest native plant nursery in the Monterey peninsula,” says Stilwell. He vows that thousands of healthy trees will be planted and that enough Monterey pines will be left to sustain the species.

The pine’s fate is the most emotional aspect of the fight but is hardly the only battlefront. Some residents say more golfers will create more automobile traffic, which, with a year-round cascade of tourists and their recreational vehicles, is already a nuisance. Others say the land in question is too rugged to yield a good course. If Pebble Beach needs anything, a few critics say, it’s an affordable municipal course, not an expensive championship track with $150 green fees--a cost of almost two bucks a swing.

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Ron Read believes all of these things. He has spent most of his 18 years in Pebble Beach keeping to himself and playing golf very well--he consistently breaks 80. His civic life, however, isn’t as satisfying as his game these days.

“Most people come to Pebble Beach due to its beauty and tranquillity,” says Read, the Western regional affairs manager for the United States Golf Assn., who gave up his civic self-isolation to join Friends of the Forest. “Today, for many Pebble Beach residents, that tranquillity has been disturbed. It’s more a place for tourists now than for residents.” The county welcomes 5 million tourists annually, and hundreds of thousands course through Pebble Beach. “The road I live on is almost like a highway,” Read says. “The community needs more golf, but it needs inexpensive, community golf. The locals are being squeezed out of the courses.”

When Read talks about those lured to Pebble Beach by its tranquillity, he would be hard-pressed to find a more typical example than Ken Long. In the months before he retired as chief engineer and general manager for the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1977,Kenneth and his wife, Susan, began a long scouting trip, exploring almost every town on the California coast between the Mexican border and Ft. Bragg. They stopped in Pebble Beach, convinced that it was as close to heaven on earth as they were going to find. On this particular summer afternoon, you would have to say it was a wise choice: While Southern California roasted in smoggy 100-degree agony, Long was lounging around in the peninsula’s typically breezy, 60-degree foggy haze.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s a wonderful community to live in--it’s very quiet and peaceful, so quiet at night that when the winds are blowing in the right way, you can hear the sea lions howling on Bird Rock,” Long says.

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Long’s hands are gnarled from rheumatoid arthritis, but he swims five days a week, plays eight or so rounds of golf each month and at 71 is in better shape than most 50-year-olds. Accustomed to the political battles inside Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley’s City Hall, Long isn’t very impressed with the Forest Course dispute. Sure, it would be better if there was no more development inside the Del Monte Forest, Long admits. But the company has the right to develop its holdings as long as the infrastructure can support it, Long says, and the course could stop a devastating wildfire.

“If you have 18 fairways, you take a lot of fuel out of that area,” says Long, who heads the 1,400-member Del Monte Forest Property Owners Assn. “There’s a lot of emotion about the Monterey pine. But if you’ve had a Monterey pine fall on your home [eight large trees fell on his property in one recent storm], they’re a little scary. I don’t want any more pine trees. I’ve got plenty of ‘em.”

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Chlorothalonil. Bensulide. Fenoxyprop-ethyl. Triadimefon. What sounds like the toxic sludge pumped out of the Love Canal are instead just some of the 192 chemicals the New York State attorney general found were applied to Long Island golf courses. The 1991 study found pesticides were dumped on golf courses at about seven times the rate for treated acres in agriculture. And that’s just the beginning of the ecological problems.

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Because they are so green, with lush trees and clear blue lakes, golf courses look not only benign but even beneficent, theoretically pumping oxygen into the atmosphere and yielding lovely open space where other developers might have built ghastly office complexes or condominiums. Yet unlike the natural, often brown and un-irrigated links found in golf’s cradle--Scotland--domestic golf courses tend to be extravagantly, and artificially, green. Indeed, some U.S. courses are essentially no more “real” than a spinning-windmill miniature-golf layout.

Grass doesn’t naturally thrive at the crew-cut heights U.S. golfers demand, leading to heavy applications of both water and potentially dangerous herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Many of the fanciest courses (and even some municipal tracks) feature greens of bent grass, a species native to Holland and vulnerable to weeds. The heavy use of chemicals can be deadly for animals and golfers alike. In 1982, a golfer suffered a fatal allergic reaction to a golf course chemical after playing three rounds at Virginia’s Army Naval Country Club. A Golf Superintendents Assn. of America study from 1970 to 1992 hashas found that its former members suffered a noticeably higher cancer rate. Razing the landscape invariably changes the local ecosystem--the seemingly innocent addition of a lake can attract new bird species, throwing the natural food chain into chaos.

The Pebble Beach Company is a leader in the national campaign to clean up golf’s tarnished environmental reputation. With a $1-million budget for forestry, ecology and native plant projects, the company uses some organic fertilizers, a “spray only when necessary” pesticide policy and turns to natural controls, such as predatory insects, whenever possible. It waters its courses with waste water reclaimed in a plant the company built last year for $33.9 million. Stilwell pledges that the Forest Course will enjoy the best environmental protections.

The company boasts that its Spanish Bay was the first California layout designated an Audobon Cooperative Sanctuary System Course by the Audobon Society of New York State--failing to mention the New York outfit has no affiliation with the National Audobon Society and is funded by golf organizations.

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Spanish Bay’s coastal sand dunes were heavily mined for silica before the course was built. The company restored the dunes with some success, bringing in 600,000 cubic yards of decomposed granite to rebuild the dunes, then replanting them with native grasses and shrubs. The Pebble Beach Company also co-hosted a symposium on golf courses and the environment earlier this year. Pitch canker, though, gets only a brief mention in the company’s most recent annual environmental report--the last five paragraphs in a 14-page document.

Safe or not, golf is gaining popularity as baby boomers dump their Levis for Madras slacks. There’s such a demand in the Monterey Peninsula that it’s often hard to get a Pebble Beach tee time unless you’re a guest at the lodge. In three years, there won’t be enough tee times for Pebble Beach visitors, the company says, which makes the Forest Course essential.

Given the relatively steady growth of golfers and the demand for new courses--an average of one U.S. layout opens every day--it does not appear to be an exaggeration. There are some 24 million American golfers, with another 2 million picking up the game every year, according to the National Golf Foundation. California has the most golfers of any state, with 2.8 million players who complete an average 19 rounds per year.

The USGA is working hard to find grasses that require less water and pesticides and course architects now worry, rather than ignore, how their courses will affect the ecosystem. But if golf is so environmentally conscious, Friends of the Forest asks, why must the trees come down?

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Friends of the Forest didn’t turn out to be the course’s only adversary. An environmental impact report funded by the Pebble Beach Company and released early last month declared that an “environmentally superior alternative” site existed within the Pebble Beach borders, near Spyglass Hill and the town’s equestrian center. More trees--a total of 42,000 as opposed to the 32,000 projected in the draft environmental impact report on the Forest Course--would be lost if the 18 holes were stamped out in the new location, but the large, pristine stands of Monterey pine threatened by the Forest Course would be left mostly alone.

In the corporate planning equivalent of playing a mulligan, the company summoned Fazio back to Pebble Beach and asked him to draw up plans for another course in the new, relatively flat location. Stilwell says no decision to abandon the Forest Course has been made, and that the company will study the community’s reaction to the alternative site during a post-report public comment period ending Dec. 28. “I’ve got a very open mind about the possibility,” Stilwell says of the new location. “If it solves the environmental problems and still allows us to accomplish our objectives, it could be a win-win.”

To earn approval for either course, the Pebble Beach Company must clear the county Planning Commission, the county supervisors and the state Coastal Commission. Hearings are expected to begin next spring, and already one supervisor, Sam Karas, whose district includes Pebble Beach, says he will oppose the Forest Course. If the company still pushes on with the Forest Course, Green says Friends of the Forest will launch a new, meaner campaign, seek a referendum or file a lawsuit to block the course’s construction. The environmental impact report, he says, proves the company is on “indefensible ground” if it doesn’t declare the Forest Course an ecological bogey.

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“I feel pretty good about what happened,” Green says. “We blew it open and said we’re not going to take this kind of 1960s corporate attitude.”

But like everyone else worried about this woody peninsula, Green can’t gloat. Pitch canker continues to march through the forest unheeded, and just as one golfer booms out a long drive on Spanish Bay and another chips in for birdie at Cypress Point, another Monterey pine, somewhere deep in the middle of the forest, starts to die.


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