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Golf Courses Not Green Enough?

Times Staff Writer

Black Gold Golf Club in Yorba Linda is 200 acres of undulating fairways and challenging greens that are framed by scruffy brushland off-limits to golfers -- but not to golf balls.

Birdies are rare. Birds are not. The threatened California gnatcatcher appears to be thriving on 77 acres of restored coastal sage-scrub since the golf course opened in 2001, says a state environmental official who is monitoring its habitat.

Golf courses, long criticized by environmentalists as a wasteful and destructive use of land, have been quietly cleaning up their act in recent years.

Today’s golf courses employ fewer pesticides, applying chemicals sparingly on affected areas or opting for nontoxic methods such as using weed-resistant grass. Computerized sprinkler systems are commonly used to minimize water waste. And courses are increasingly being built not with fat fairways but with large natural buffer zones designed to be havens for wild animals.

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But as golf course developers work to associate their projects more closely with natural open space than built-on land, conservationists fear that the “environmentally friendly” label will be used to justify building golf courses in ecologically sensitive areas.

While acknowledging that golf course designers are doing a better job of managing pollution and water use, many environmentalists say developers are overstating advances in course construction.

“Environmentally friendly golf courses are an oxymoron,” said Claire Schlotterbeck, executive director of Hills for Everyone, a Brea-based conservation group. She recently joined the opposition to a proposed “environmentally friendly” course in a county wilderness park.

The plan, by the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, encountered fierce opposition; supervisor Tom Wilson, who represents the area, said recently that he would oppose the project if it was submitted to the county.

How damaging golf courses are to the environment is a significant issue for Southern California, home to more than half of the state’s roughly 900 golf courses. The region’s 475 courses cover more than 70,000 acres -- nearly twice the size of Orange County’s parks combined.

And more are on the way.

On the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties, the developer who built Black Gold and the surrounding 1,800-home Vista del Verde project is proposing 3,600 homes on 3,000 acres that for decades have been used for oil exploration and cattle grazing.

The Aera Master Planned Community near Brea would include a 250-acre golf course inside a 700-acre greenbelt. The strip is an attempt to appease concerns that the project would cut off a critical wildlife corridor that extends from Cleveland National Forest to Whittier. But environmentalists say a golf course is not natural landscape and that the development will undo more than two decades of conservation efforts in the area.

In south Orange County, the owners of the 23,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo plan to build 14,000 homes and four golf courses on the county’s largest remaining tract of undeveloped private land. Conservationists worry about pollution runoff from the project, but company officials say the development -- including the golf courses -- will be restricted to less ecologically sensitive areas.

Riverside County, which has experienced rapid growth in recent years, has the most golf courses in the region, and seven more are under construction amid growing tension over dwindling water resources.

Golf courses, supporters say, can play an important role by providing a buffer between undeveloped land and fully urbanized areas.

“Where development abuts wilderness, it actually diminishes the wilderness area on the edges because human activity usually goes further into the wilderness area,” said Alissa Ing, an ecologist for the state Department of Parks and Recreation charged with overseeing Black Gold’s habitat restoration program. People, domestic animals and nonnative vegetation in landscaping can invade wild areas over time, she said, forcing native plants and animals to retreat.

Other golf courses are radically reducing the amount of land given over to manicured turf. At the Shady Canyon Golf Club in Irvine, a 300-acre private course nestled in the ecologically sensitive San Joaquin Hills, only 80 acres are devoted to greens and fairways, which are irrigated with reclaimed water.

A growing number of golf courses in the desert of eastern Riverside County also use reclaimed water, a fraction of the more than 35 billion gallons a year used to irrigate courses in the Coachella Valley.

While water agency officials in the county say golf courses don’t consume any more water per acre than homes or office buildings, environmentalists take a different view.

“How many people use golf courses?” said Joan Taylor, a Sierra Club representative in Palm Springs. “You may be able to build environmentally friendly golf courses in Scotland, but this is the desert.” Innovations such as relying on reclaimed water don’t make golf courses more environmentally friendly, “just a little less unfriendly,” she said.

To combat criticism, the United States Golf Assn. has spent $25 million over the last 25 years on environmental studies ranging from the effect of golf courses on migratory birds to how Oriental beetle populations can be controlled by disrupting mating patterns rather than with pesticides.

The efforts to clean up the sport’s environmental scorecard are sincere, industry insiders say, and are even used to promote courses to environmentally conscious players.

“Fifty years ago we weren’t even aware of what happened to the environment” around golf courses, said Arthur Hills, a renowned golf course architect who designed Black Gold. “But there has been increasing pressure and concern over the environment, and I think it has led to better golf courses. They are also more beautiful and textured” because builders have incorporated natural features into their designs, he said.

Nevertheless, the debate is likely to get more heated. With open space dwindling in urban areas such as Southern California, new golf courses and their environmental impact will attract more scrutiny, experts say.

The Aera Master Planned project near Brea proposed for the middle of the wildlife corridor is likely to encounter such issues when it reaches planning commissions in Orange and Los Angeles counties this year.

The developer points to its environmental record at Black Gold. But Schlotterbeck, the local conservationist, said the Yorba Linda course may work as a buffer between homes and wilderness, but the new course wouldn’t work as a wildlife corridor.


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