By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
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One of Nicklaus' most recognized designs from the '80s is Desert Highlands Golf Club in Scottsdale, which was described at its opening as "the first in-your-face desert course."
What's in the face of today's golf-course architects is environmental activism. People in some of the most beautiful areas of the country are criticizing golf courses not just for depleting water tables, but also for destroying natural habitats, tampering with animal populations and leaching pesticides and fertilizers into groundwater.
"We're seeing a lot of development in sensitive areas, because that's where a lot of the most spectacular scenery is," he says.
Golfers, and so golf-course developers, covet splendid natural backdrops for their playgrounds; in response, some developers are pushing their own unnatural creations closer to wetlands, streams and other riparian areas to provide more "natural" settings.
Golf-course superintendents can claim some progress on the environmental front. Computerized sprinkler systems with thousands of heads use far less water and are less obtrusive than older systems; at the start of construction, native trees are carefully uprooted and boxed for replanting; miles of concrete golf-cart paths are "color-coordinated to match the indigenous soil"--which means they're brown instead of black or white. Also, many golf clubs claim to be making environmental amends by pointing out their affiliations to the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which is, unfortunately, not all it seems (see sidebar).
Some of these environmental innovations--even the legitimate ones--sound a bit silly. But golf courses possessing such features are at least more friendly to the environment than many other sorts of development. A tree-lined fairway certainly nurtures more birds and insects than a parking lot or a strip mall. And a golf course is arguably just as eco-friendly as a farmer's field that also is soaked with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.
In Arizona, there are rules about golf-course habitat destruction, but not many. Cactuses that need to be uprooted during construction must be transplanted facing the same direction. Attention must be paid to the natural washes and gullies that provide drainage during downpours.
In climates such as Arizona's, pesticide use follows water use as the critical issue. A 1982 EPA survey showed that the average course was sprayed and spread with more than nine pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides per acre each year, about three times the amount of chemicals applied by the most intensive agribusiness operations to an acre of corn or soybeans.
Among the estimated 126 pesticides currently in use on golf courses, three of the most popular--chlorothalonil; 2,4-D; and trifluralin--have caused cancer in laboratory animals, according to the Eugene, Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Golfers rarely know what chemicals have been applied to their favorite courses. Only about 20 states (Arizona is not one) require clubs to post chemical notices, and few elsewhere voluntarily inform the public. Even the United States Golf Association says it is not uncommon for golfers and golf-course workers to have adverse reactions to the array of chemicals used to maintain turf grass.
To understand why golf courses are awash in chemicals, think about the most chemical-dependent area of the course--the putting green. There, grass is mowed as short as one-tenth of an inch, so putts will roll evenly toward the hole. Because greens are shaved to such smoothness, says Steve Jones, a botanist who lives in Cave Creek, they constantly exist on the edge of life and death. "Shaved grasses have less mature root and shoot systems," Jones says. "And they're usually less tolerant of heat, cold, drought or excess moisture, and more subject to disease, than higher grass."
Superintendents must fight moisture, wind, heat extremes, molds and fungus to keep their greens green. If they don't, golfers and club owners whine. Too much whining, and the supers may be out of a job.
Such rigid standards exist because a golf ball will not roll consistently across patches of dead or dying turf. And after the chemicals are put on the grass to keep it alive, there's more bad environmental news.
Putting greens are more susceptible to chemical leaching than fairways or roughs because beneath that thin, smooth layer of turf is a base of 70 to 90 percent sand. Chemicals routinely leach through sand, especially after heavy rainfalls, and can migrate into streams or rivers. Recently, high concentrations of the herbicide Surflan, which is used to kill rough desert grasses and small bushes, were found in a wash at a golf course in north Scottsdale. Surflan is considered dangerous to humans and animals in high concentrations. A couple, whose child developed a rash after playing in the wash, called the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality; the couple was astonished when the department said it had no jurisdiction over this level of contamination on the golf course.
Besides weed- and insect-killing chemicals, golf-course run-off also can carry fertilizers that can play havoc with local habitats. When plants in the desert receive more water and nutrients than they naturally would, they grow too quickly and become dependent on artificial help. When the extra water and food are cut off, the plants die and are more likely to pose a fire hazard.