Rockland Country Club promotes the value of natural areas
The golf course implements an education and outreach program to gain members’ acceptance.
Matthew J. Ceplo, CGCS
Rockland Golf Club, Sparkill, N.Y.
Rockland Golf Club (RCC) is a private 18-hole golf facility that was established in 1906. Environmental stewardship is an important element of golf course maintenance at RCC, an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2000. Natural areas are part of RCC’s environmental stewardship efforts. They have a positive impact on the course’s bottom line as well. Converting areas into natural areas helped to reduce labor, fuel, fertilizer, and other inputs. The natural areas presented challenges with golfers, but RCC successfully implemented an education and outreach program to gain the members’ acceptance.
In the beginning…
We initially developed natural areas within the out of play areas located in the rough. These areas never received irrigation and only received one annual application of fertilizer and pre-emergent. During the transition, drought tolerant grasses had dominated these areas and developed an appearance of a Scottish type links course. Other than a few lost ball comments from the membership, the areas were well received and viewed as a huge success. As the years went by more and more different plants began colonizing sections within these areas. We started getting complaints that the areas looked scruffy and lacked maintenance. I didn't want to start spraying or spending extra time and money to maintain these areas. That would be defeating our main purpose, so I investigated the plants that were invading our native areas.
A plant invasion
Milkweed was the first plant I identified because it was one of the ugliest plants and stuck out the most. We discovered that milkweed is the main food source for the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. I let this plant grow. We used the milkweed as an example of good environmental stewardship and communicated its value to our members. An aquarium with caterpillars and milkweed was set up as an educational display. The aquarium was placed within the ladies locker room as a test before announcing and sharing the display with the entire membership. Our ladies locker room attendant kept me posted on what members were saying. The ladies immediately started asking what was inside the aquarium. The aquarium display included a brief description of the caterpillar’s life cycle, which helped capture the readers’ attention. When the ladies found out that they came from the native area on hole number seven, I knew that milkweed was here to stay. Since then the aquarium has been moved out to the main foyer where everyone can watch the Monarch’s different life stages. Members’ can see the life stages from egg to caterpillar (eating the milkweed) to pupa to butterfly. Almost everyone is amazed when they find out that our butterflies migrate to Mexico for the winter.
The University of Kansas manages a program called "Monarch Watch." I immediately joined the program as a monarch way station. Tagging kits let you catch butterflies and place a small adhesive tag to its wing. Using the tag KU can track and follow the butterfly’s migration patterns. As a way of increasing our outreach and education program, a local Girl Scout troop came to the course to catch and tag monarch butterflies. The monarch butterfly has become the ambassador of our native areas. Milkweed is not the only plant colonizing our native areas. After inventorying and researching all the plants that were growing in the different areas, I realized that most of them have some kind of environmental benefit. Just to name a few:
- Thistle is used by finches for food and nesting
- Golden rods and boltonia are good for pollinators
- Little bluestem produces seeds as a food source
- Raspberries on the edge of the woods are a food source
- Rag weed produces seeds that birds forage for in the winter months
Educate, educate, educate
Additional education efforts were required in the beginning. First, we had to dispel the notion that native areas had to be thin wispy stands of grass where golf balls could be easily found. We displayed pictures of the naturalized areas before we let them grow. The pre-naturalized areas are outside the scope of our irrigation system. They get very thin, and in some areas stony, especially in the summer. Golfers learned that you can easily find your ball, but the odds of an acceptable lie are slim. The notion that these areas were pristine before we let the grass grow was quickly dispelled. We then shared how the transition impacted the course’s bottom line. We let members know how much money we were saving by not maintaining these areas. Native areas or no mow areas have also saved us thousands of dollars in man hours over the past few years. Our staff currently spends 31 percent (6,332 hours) of our time mowing. Approximately 40 percent (906 hours) of that time is mowing roughs. Over the years we have reduced our rough mowing by more than 10 percent, saving us 90 hours (or approximately $2,241.00) per year. That estimate doesn’t include additional costs like fuel, equipment repairs or the cost of a new rough mower.
Next, we shared information about the naturalized areas in light of habitat and wildlife. We have seen an increase in our bird and animal population. Turkeys, foxes, and coyotes are a regular occurrence. Deer have been found bedding down in these areas. Blue birds, Thrashers and other birds utilize these areas. Many people don’t realize that these areas provide critical habitat for beneficial insects.
Informing the membership about all of these benefits and the specific plants we have is important. I used my camera to take pictures. The pictures are posted on our bulletin board, web page, and newsletters. When members saw us removing the purple loofstrife’s beautiful flowers we had to explain what we were doing. An invasive plant list was posted on our Audubon bulletin board to show members which plants needed to be removed. We strive to manage the naturalized areas and plant species in a beneficial manner. We don't let everything grow everywhere. We have specific areas where we allow milkweed. It looks bad if only one milkweed plant is in the middle of a grassy area as opposed to a group of milkweed on the edge of a wood line. In the few areas where we received complaints of lost balls or speed of play became an issue, we just tweaked our mowing. Usually an extra pass of the rough mower was enough to make the members happy.
I rarely hear complaints that our areas are unkempt. Members understand that if a plant is left standing, then it must be serving a purpose. Members have actually told me that they have let some milkweed grow at their house and monitor the plants for caterpillars. We never stop tweaking or learning from our environmental projects. Here’s an example: We have three acres in our natural area management program that we used to seed yearly. Now we only seed when necessary, and we use more perennials and natives. We could maintain the natural areas differently, such as a monoculture of tall fescue in lieu of allowing some natural succession. However, we have let nature take over and have gained so much more in return.
Learn more about the Rockland Golf Club.