Cleaning up the image of golf… courses | SierraSun.com

Cleaning up the image of golf… courses

Christina Nelson

Perhaps one of the most controversial issues in Truckee’s land use history is, to 25.8 million people in the United States, simply a fun, competitive and beautiful environment: golf courses.

With the money generated by golf courses and golf course communities, 377 new golf courses were constructed in the United States last year. According to the National Golf Foundation, by the end of 2001, 652 courses were under construction and another 905 were being planned.

Truckee’s economy has not been immune to the golf industry’s building boom. East West Partners’ approved Old Greenwood project has one in it, and Grey’s Crossing, the developer’s proposed project north of Interstate 80, will include another.

The golf course image has been tainted in recent years, from accusations of the overuse of fertilizers to the thousands of gallons of water it takes to maintain all that grass.

Enter Audubon International, a non-profit organization that certifies golf courses across the country as wildlife sanctuaries and developments as sustainable communities.

As East West Partners moves toward certifying two of its proposed golf courses as wildlife habitats and sustainable developments, some local groups are questioning the validity of that title.

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“If we’re going to put in a course… this is the absolute best way to do it,” said Aaron Revere, East West’s director of environmental initiatives.

“If you look at the town of Truckee general plan, the plan has a golf course provided for,” said Rick McConn, East West’s project manager for Grey’s Crossing. “If you’re going to do a golf course, just do the best golf course you can possibly do.”

And East West argues that certifying their courses through Audubon International is the best way to do it.

Audubon International was started in 1991 and, by collaborating with the United States Golf Association, its membership has grown to include more than 2,000 golf courses in North America.

East West’s Coyote Moon Golf Course was recently recognized by the organization’s cooperative sanctuary program, which the organization claims “seeks to address golf’s environmental concerns while maximizing golf course opportunities to provide open space benefits.” East West also hopes to achieve a “gold level of sustainable development” through another Audubon International program that works with developers not only on golf courses, but on situating homes, creating wildlife corridors and habitat for a variety of animals and on educational programs for residents of the community.

“It’s not just about managing the course, but how you manage the community,” Revere said.

But golf courses and golf course communities have their detractors in Truckee, who have argued that golf courses just aren’t appropriate in an alpine environment.

“The main reason for loss of sensitive native animals in the Sierra Nevada is loss of native habitat and/or fragmentation of that habitat,” said David Kean of the Tahoe Group of the Sierra Club.

Kean also worries about habituation of species, a process by which animals that tolerate human presence overtake animals that don’t.

“Most animals do not tolerate human presence well,” Kean said. “The majority of animals that do not tolerate human presence, and are in trouble across the Sierra continue to decline, while those that we feed can start to outcompete those that don’t.”

McConn wasn’t a believer in Audubon International’s program until he learned about the organization’s focus on sustainable communities.

“I thought it was just something you paid money for and they hung this gold certificate up,” he said.

The “Audubon International” name on these golf courses and communities sometimes gets confused with the National Audubon Society, which was created for the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems.

But Audubon International is not associated with the National Audubon Society.

“When it’s actually not stated, then the potential for confusion is pretty big,” said John Bianchi of the National Audubon Society. The organization sued Audubon International at one point because of the similarity of the name, but lost.

Bianchi said he gets about 10 calls a week from people who are confused about the difference between the two. He even gets calls from developers who think the National Audubon Society is Audubon International.

But the similarities in the names pale in comparison to the recent controversy over East West’s proposed Old Greenwood project and the designation of golf courses as open space in Truckee.

Although no other property within the town limits can have a golf course on it, other than those that are already designated as such, at least three questions during a Truckee Town Council election forum related to citizens’ concerns about golf courses and open space.

A lawsuit, which was recently settled, was filed this summer by the Mountain Area Preservation Foundation, claiming the project did not comply with Truckee’s general plan.

In late July and early August, petitioners collected approximately 1,000 signatures to put two ordinances central to Old Greenwood’s development on the ballot. The petition fell short because not enough people were properly registered voters.

With the lawsuit now settled, East West will continue with its plans at Old Greenwood and on its gold level certification.

East West is currently working with Audubon International to establish a baseline for the property’s “natural capital” to use as part of a master plan.

“They’ll look to see what’s there and will work within the master plan,” McConn said.

“Understand that these processes are dynamic, there’s always room for improvement,” Revere said. “I don’t think we will ever claim… that any of the processes are ever perfect.”