It has been four years since I stopped being a greenkeeper, and I miss it. But I’m not going back.
I miss being part of the profession that is so intense that friendships between greenkeepers form so easily. I miss being in a position, despite its flaws, of having what it is really the most control one can have over a landscape using other people’s money. I miss the complexity of problems and the combination of science and politics solutions require. And I miss the constant feedback, even if it is bad.
In many ways, I am just a bureaucrat now, fighting to make a difference with tools ill-suited to the task compared to what I am used to. Since no one here really knows enough about what I do to offer any feedback, I work in a silo, self-motivating, believing in the mission of the National Park Service and trying to find a way to make an impact. Government all but assures that any change will be incremental. As a citizen, that is great. As someone who wants to make an impact, it is challenging.
This has been healthy for me though, physically and personally. My lifestyle is healthier and my personal relationships more engaging and abundant. I will live longer and feel better about myself for making this mid-life transition. The world seems more open with more possibilities than ever before. This, however, can be confusing to someone who has always known what his (narrow) path forward was. In the NPS, it seems a golf course superintendent has more skills than just turf that are applicable – a perception anyone leaving the profession will struggle with.
The NPS’s mission is to preserve and protect public lands. I would argue it’s not that different from being a golf course superintendent. We both exist to protect the landscape from the group that hired us. And there is a minority of that group that will fight the premise that we all try to manage.
“Government all but assures that any change will be incremental. As a citizen, that is great. As someone who wants to make an impact, it is challenging.”
The park I work at, the National Mall and Memorial Parks, is different than most national parks in that it is really a city. But how this large park staffs itself says a lot about the multiple hats a golf course superintendent wears. While the park has a superintendent, she is more like a mayor. There is an interpretive division that educates, much like a pro shop. But other than that, the divisions of resource management (natural and cultural along with environmental compliance), professional services (planning, landscape design), facility management (grounds, roads, plumbing, electrical, signs, carpentry, custodial, etc.), fleet management, permits (event guidelines) and a public information official all seem to parallel what golf course superintendents and staff do.
But amongst all those, I sit by myself as the only turf management specialist in the entire park service. I do not have a staff, but I train the grounds crew and write/manage contracts to get turf work done. I lobby and network to get funding for turf and landscape projects. I helped secure partnerships that make up for a lack of operational funding, including professional turf equipment from John Deere. I have developed alternative funding sources through permit restructuring and cost recovery. In other words, it’s a bureaucratic approach to making a difference incrementally.
I was hired to manage the $43-million restoration of the Mall. This has gone well. As a citizen, I am impressed with government contracting and project management. It is tough to see how the corruption that is assumed to exist in these situations would be able to happen. I was only one member of a team that managed it. I got the coolest part … the turf nerd stuff. But because I was part of the managing team, I felt removed from, not part of team implementation.
I guess that’s it. I am part of several teams, but not the team that implements. I think that makes satisfaction difficult to feel. It was the teams that I used to be on at the club and the association level that I am having a hard time replacing in my current life. My game is now a long one, working individually on making a difference at an institution incrementally so that future staff has the infrastructure, funding, training and professionals to make this park look and feel as it should.
And that leaves me, the person who only ever wanted to be a greenkeeper, to decide whether I am still a turf person who works for the National Park Service or someone who is going to try to advance in the NPS who just happens to specialize in turf.
Michael Stachowicz is head of turf management for the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., and a former golf course superintendent.