Schenley links in Pittsburgh certified as green

Two of city golf course's 51 acres turned into natural meadow habitat


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Less grass will have to be cut at the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park, and there will be a lot more birdies now that two acres of habitat have been restored to natural meadow on the 51-acre course.

After two years of analysis and rigorous documentation to Audubon International, The Bob -- which is named after the late mayor, owned by the city and managed by The First Tee of Pittsburgh -- was certified an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary this month. It is one of only 5 percent of all golf courses in the country to be certified and the first certified course managed by a First Tee chapter.

Golf courses have long been criticized for their water and chemical use and habitat displacement, but Audubon International has at least a partial fix for organizations that brave the process.

"We had no idea what we were getting into," said Susan Creighton, a nearby resident who co-chaired the team that prepared the documentation. "But we still would have done it because of the green movement that's happening in Pittsburgh."

Another reason, said Marc Field, executive director of The First Tee of Pittsburgh, was to include youths in the program "to learn how to be responsible stewards."

The First Tee is a nonprofit youth development agency that uses golf as a platform to teach life skills.

Audubon International established its sanctuary certification program 22 years ago "to reach out to land managers to reduce our footprint and protect water and habitat," said Joellen Lampman, program director. The U.S. Golf Association helped design the program for golf courses.

There are 858 certified courses in the country, and another 12 percent are working toward certification, she said.

The requirements cover environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, outreach and education.

To plan for certification, The First Tee gathered board members, volunteers, neighbors and experts from the National Aviary, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Penn State Agricultural Extension, Rachel Carson Homestead, Phipps Conservatory, TreeVitalize, the USGA and the Greater Pittsburgh Golf Course Superintendent's Association.

It was part of a five-year strategic plan that began three years ago.

The committee used 2009 as a benchmark for self-assessment of the site, policies, procedures and inventories. Audubon International then "gave us an action plan of what we needed to do to come into compliance," Mr. Field said.

The local effort that was expected to take three to five years was completed in two.

Numerous volunteers included First Tee youth who helped install 40 bird boxes that were donated by the Carpenters Union on poles donated by Wild Birds Unlimited. The Toro Co. donated plants. Youths monitor the bird boxes as part of the ongoing data collection.

Ms. Creighton said the quick certification owed much to watershed remediation already done by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and The First Tee's conservation.

"We had already started reducing chemical use," said Jeff Duxbury, superintendent of the golf course. "We don't have automatic spraying, so we're already conserving water."

The course has 93 new trees and numerous native plant areas.

First Tee will continue to work with the city and parks conservancy on projects to protect the watershed from storm-water runoff in Panther Hollow, Mr. Field said.

"Most of their parcel of land is turf with a road running through the middle of it, so it contributes a lot of rainwater runoff during storms," said the conservancy's restoration ecologist Erin Copeland. Future plans are to install grading, or little berms with rain garden soil behind them to retain water.

The meadows along the wooded edges where the golf course meets the forest have improved rain water infiltration and reduced runoff, she said.

The course switched to fertilizers that don't have to be applied as often and are more efficiently absorbed to keep them from leaching or converting to gas and evaporating.

Mr. Field also said it's "a no-brainer" to encourage more bird species and let them do the work of ridding the turf of grubs instead of buying chemicals to do it. He said the committee considered the course's "pest threshold" to keep a balance between happy golfers and better stewardship.

As a result, the course will be in clover, which is nitrogen-rich and behaves when mowed, unlike dandelion and plantain, both of which will continue to be sprayed.

Areas that have been returned to nature used to be playable mowed roughs.

"We'll have to be re-rated by the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association, but that's a good thing," because a greater degree of difficulty is considered favorably by golfers, Mr. Field said.

Audubon International's motive for the program was to get people involved in their own environmental remedies and to see the economic benefit, Ms. Lampman said.

"In places where they are buying water, it can be millions saved, especially in the Southwest," she said. "If they can revert areas back to natural, they don't have to mow or water."

Mr. Field said The First Tee has not yet calculated what it cost to become certified because almost all goods and services were donated.

Ms. Lampman cited a case study of a New Jersey course whose owner spent $4,500 returning mowed areas back to nature, "but when he calculated the reduced labor, water, mowing, fertilizer and wear and tear on vehicles, he was saving over $40,000 per year," she said. She declined to name the course, saying it had changed management and might no longer be pursuing recertification.

The certified courses are checked every two years for following the plan.

"As long as they keep a good [updated] folder, they will only be sticking an envelope in the mail," Ms. Lampman said. "The hard work is getting certified in the first place."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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