By Akiko Matsuda
SPARKILL – It’s not easy staying green, particularly when you’re talking about golf courses.
Maintenance of a course is expensive and the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to keep greens green can put stress on the surrounding environment.
But that may be changing. Greenskeepers on some local courses, looking to hold down costs and protect the environment, are going back to nature.
Take Rockland Country Club, for example. Over the past decade, the club has stopped applying chemicals in certain areas to create wildlife habitat. Butterfly zones are added along cart paths, and bluebird nest boxes were installed away from fairways.
“It started as a way of saving money, because we can let these areas go with less maintenance,” said Matt Ceplo, superintendent of the country club for the past 20 years.
Rockland is among six lower Hudson Valley country clubs — along with Century Country Club in Purchase, Hudson Hills Golf Course in Ossining, Manhattan Woods Golf Club in West Nyack, Westchester Country Club in Rye and Whippoorwill Club in Armonk — that have received certificates from Audubon International, a nonprofit based in Troy. The recognition is given to program participants who meet environmental standards in areas such as habitat management, water conservation and chemical use. (Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., which has a large Westchester membership, is also Audubon-certified.)
Doug Bechtel, Audubon International’s executive director, said the program was established to help golf courses reduce environmental impact. About 900 facilities around the world have been certified, and about 1,000 more are working toward earning the recognition, he said.
“A lot of major companies and associations that support golf around the world and particularly here in this country are recognizing the benefits and need to be more environmentally sensitive, in part because golf courses started seeing economic benefit,” Bechtel said. “Less chemicals, less fuel, less water — all these things can result in saving money.”
Ceplo said about 20 of his course’s 150 acres are now what he calls “naturalized areas for pollinators and butterflies,” which are not treated with any chemicals. Another 10 to 15 acres on the course are woodlands that also require very little maintenance and no chemicals, he said. Because of these changes, the club spends less money in chemicals and water, saving about $10,000 a year, he said.
Creating natural habitats
On a recent afternoon, a couple of butterflies flitted from flower to flower in a patch of greenery along a cart path at Rockland Golf Club. In another area, bright-colored caterpillars — which will become the black swallowtail butterflies — munched on feathery fronds of bronze fennel.
Ceplo began planting patches of butterfly-friendly plants several years ago as a way of attracting eastern bluebirds, which feed on caterpillars. Going back to nature calls for less chemicals, he said, but requires a trial-and-error learning process.
He quickly figured out that certain butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on certain plants. For instance, monarch butterflies feed on many flowers, but lay eggs only on milkweeds. So Ceplo started letting milkweeds grow in the club property, including on a stretch of land along the No. 10 hole.
But milkweeds on a golf course?
Some members were initially unhappy about their appearance, saying that the course looked weedy, Ceplo recalled.
To show club members why he can’t cut down milkweeds, he placed live monarch caterpillars, along with the plants, in an aquarium and displayed it in the clubhouse lobby.
“You see them eating and see them forming chrysalises and hatch. Just to watch that process, it’s really pretty,” Ceplo said. “Nature sells itself.”
Paul Gonzalez, superintendent of the Whippoorwill Club, said he faced similar challenges when he started creating about 17 acres of naturalized zones in his golf course.
“Some of the members weren’t happy about it because it’s making the game a little harder for the golfers,” Gonzalez said, noting that waist-high native grasses can be seen as a hazard.
Like Ceplo, Gonzalez reached out to the members and explained his environmental efforts, he said.
The natural look is appreciated by Anthony Di Muccio of New City, a Rockland Country Club member.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” he said, as he got back to the cart during his recent round. “It gives a good character. It gives a healthy character.”
The success with the natural approach at Rockland is praised by John Lampkin of Suffern, a member of the North American Butterfly Association.
“Golf courses have a bad reputation because of all the pesticides and fertilizers that they have to use to keep the greens going. So people in the butterfly community view golf courses as really bad, evil places,” Lampkin said. “But what Matt has done showed that that doesn’t have to be the case.”
Green initiatives are ongoing pursuits
Two winters ago, Ceplo built a green roof over a pump house as the facility underwent renovation.
At the Whippoorwill Club, Gonzalez recently replaced some asphalt pavement near ponds with permeable surface to reduce storm-water runoff.
“As golf course superintendents, we’re kind of fancy farmers,” said Gonzalez, who studied plant science in college. “Our crop is grass, and anything that helps being environmentally friendly, that’s what we try to do.”
Keeping club members happy while reducing environmental impacts can complicate things, but it can be done, Ceplo said.
“You can be a world-class golf course and still good for the environment,” Ceplo said.
Staff writer Mike Dougherty contributed to this report.