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In 2014, I joined the board of directors for Audubon International, an organization with which I have been involved for over two decades. This year marks the 25th year of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) — one of the most popular educational certification programs for golf courses. Over the past 25 years of my career, I have seen golf courses and Audubon International work together to champion the idea that golf courses can be managed to benefit the larger ecosystem.

The ACSP was first inspired by early conversations with a golf course superintendent at McGregor Links Golf Club in upstate New York. The superintendent sought wildlife advice to solve a skunk problem without chemicals or poison. The Audubon Society of New York State (later to become Audubon International) encouraged the superintendent to consider the habitat and food sources on the course which were attracting the skunk. Word of this successful new approach to wildlife problems spread among superintendents. Soon, Audubon International was working with golf courses to incorporate environmental management practices which benefitted both the environment and their facility. Recognizing an opportunity to improve golf’s environmental performance, the USGA stepped up to provide support and The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program was born.

At that time, I had just accepted a new position at Pebble Beach Company as vice president of resource management and my new boss, President Tom Oliver, challenged me to improve environmental awareness and behavior within the resort and the community. The timing was perfect and with guidance and environmental expertise from Audubon International staff, “we were able to provide clear parameters and attainable goals to our superintendents. These practical standards improved our environmental practices and ultimately demonstrated to the community that golf courses can provide natural habitat and clean water for indigenous species – through hands-on attention to details.”

The Links at Spanish Bay became the first California golf course to be certified in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. With this momentum, the ideas of “Responsibility, Compromise and Trade-offs” were woven together to form a philosophy that enabled the Pebble Beach Company to be a leader in stewardship on the golf courses and throughout the resort. Some highlights of our successes include:

  1. 1. Establishing five environmental principles to guide operations.
    • “We will strive to implement, or create, proactive environmental programs”
    • “We will use knowledge and experience of the past to improve awareness and performance for the future”
    • “We will strive to minimize waste and integrate environmentally sensitive products and behavior into our operations”
    • “We will seek innovative solutions to protect the resources for which we are responsible”
    • “And, we will hold ourselves accountable for our operations and conduct assessments of our methods and performance.”
  2. 2. Tracking and verifying water flowing from the golf courses. We discovered that water leaving was “cleaner” than the water that flowed onto the course from adjacent lands. Years of independent documentation of these results helped to persuade the California Coastal Commission to retract a requirement that no storm water flow from California golf courses could be allowed to enter the adjacent ocean waters.
  3. 3. Establishing a Golf and the Environment Coalition. This culminated in the 1995 Golf & the Environment Conference. The event brought awareness to the idea that golf courses contribute significant open spaces to expanding urbanization and showed superintendents are capable of advancing environmental causes while improving aesthetics and playability.
  4. 4. Redesigning the seawall at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links 18th hole. California’s Coastal Commission restricts construction of sea walls adjacent to the ocean waters and Pebble Beach Company had not been able to get a permit to rebuild the failing concrete block wall at the 18th hole. While visiting a dinosaur attraction in Calgary, Alberta, I noticed that the exhibits were positioned on realistic rocks depicting their natural habitat. Upon return, I had an engineering firm develop a computerized simulation of a seawall that mimicked the look of the natural rocks of the adjacent coastline. The Coastal Commission not only approved our permit, they noted “that the design would become the standard for California ocean side walls.” The project provided a lifetime of memories.

The successes at Pebble Beach had a legacy in raising awareness of environmental work on golf courses and highlighted the idea of cooperative projects that benefit both the environment and golf course facility. In short, the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Certification process provides a disciplined approach to environmental planning, offers conservation projects that benefit wildlife, protect natural resources, and allow us to manage our golf courses with a high degree of playability.

Ted Horton, CGCS, is a senior consulting superintendent at BrightView Golf Maintenance and former vice president of resource management of the Pebble Beach Company.