© Johnny Greig | istock

In many communities, golf courses can represent the largest area of continuous public green space. Golf courses not only provide recreation and exercise for the golfer, but can provide very suitable and necessary habitat for wildlife and birds, filter and sequester harmful pollutants and contaminants, and protect surface and groundwater.

The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay is an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course located about 25 miles outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., on the grounds of Harrison Bay State Park. Our course is home to hundreds of species of animals and birds, including our world famous nesting pair of bald eagles, Elliott and Eliza. We have a strong dedication to and affection for the property we maintain and for the residents that call it “home.” We strive every day to balance the needs of the golfers and the golf course with the needs of the environment and the inhabitants of the course.

In an effort to better educate ourselves and to give our environmental programs and practices some credibility, we began several years ago to look at independent third-party environmental certification programs. The certification programs provide us with valuable ideas and information, as well as support and credibility. No longer are we saying our programs and practices are the correct way to do things simply because that is what we say but rather we have verification from well-respected and vetted outside organizations which put their stamp of approval on our property.

There are many environmental certification programs available to golf course superintendents and property managers, all having their own strengths and merits, but we chose to partner with three programs in particular. Audubon International, Golf Environment Organization and The Groundwater Foundation are the independent third-party certification programs we chose, each for their own strengths and area of expertise, but also for their level of support and industry recognition.

Each organization brings something different and unique to our environmental certification portfolio. Audubon International is well recognized in our industry and through the Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf we have been able to gain information and strategies for environmental projects on our golf course. Golf Environment Organization gives a broader look at the property looking at all aspects of our impact on the environment from the clubhouse to the golf course to our community involvement. The Groundwater Foundation, through their Groundwater Guardian Green Site program, provides us information and support and recognizes us for our efforts to protect and preserve groundwater both on and surrounding the golf course.

A certification trifecta

Audubon International


Audubon International is probably the most well known third-party environmental certification program for golf courses and communities in the United States. Although they are not associated with all of the over 500 entities that use the word “Audubon” when it comes to conversations within the golf course community, when you say “Audubon” most everyone knows you are speaking about Audubon International.

Audubon International gained great prominence when in 1987 Mr. Ronald Dodson brought the program of the Audubon Society of New York State back to life from a 50-year hibernation. The environmental programs provided by the Audubon Society of New York State quickly grew to impact properties outside of the state of New York and in 1996 Audubon International was created “to reflect the true scope of its operations”.

Today, Audubon International is the trusted name in environmental stewardship and certification with about 2,000-member courses in the United States and around the world. The organization’s approach to sustainability includes several programs from Green Lodging to Sustainable Communities but the ones that impact our industry the most are the Signature Program and the Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf program.

“Certification in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf is a straightforward way for golf course superintendents to demonstrate their environmental knowledge while benefitting their course and community,” Audubon International executive director Christine Kane says. “Participation provides great opportunities to involve everyone at the course: owners, staff and members; in the certification process, thus increasing their knowledge of and connection to their environmental mission.”

The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay promotes its third-party environmental certification on course flags.
© paul carter

Golf Environment Organization


The Golf Environment Organization is the premier environmental sustainability verification program in Europe and is making great strides to continue its work throughout the world. With over 1,500 golf courses in 94 countries utilizing their OnCourse programming either as tool to assist and improve their operations to become more environmentally aware and sustainable or working toward their certification to become a GEO Certified property, it is easy to see how their outreach is helping courses worldwide be better stewards of the land and the environment. GEO is making strides to increase its presence in the United States as there are currently 130 golf courses in the U.S. participating in the OnCourse program, with 11 courses gaining GEO Certified status.

What sets GEO certification apart from the other third-party independent verification programs, in my opinion, besides being a member of the ISEAL Alliance, a global assurance body for sustainability standards, is that GEO requires property managers to look at their property as a whole. GEO Certification requires each manager to look at how his or her property is being sustainable in the broad picture not just on the golf course with water conservation or selecting the proper turf for their environment but over the entire property. Is the produce for the restaurant being purchased local? Are recycling stations available for patrons? What is the carbon footprint impact of products being ordered and delivered to the property? In the big scheme of things, it is often more than just growing some native grass areas, or putting up bird houses on the course, or reducing the amount of water, fertilizer or pesticides used. Superintendents must take into account how their entire operation is affecting the environment.

The Groundwater Foundation


The Groundwater Foundation began in 1984 by Ms. Susan S. Seacrest due to concerns over elevated nitrate levels in the groundwater in the Platte River Valley near her home in Nebraska. In 1994, the Groundwater Guardian Green Site designation was created to support, recognize and connect communities taking positive, voluntary steps to protect groundwater. Water is one of the main ingredients every golf course superintendent needs to have a healthy and successful course. Protecting and preserving the waterways in, on and around each golf course is extremely important. With 11 of the 18 holes on our golf course directly touching water or wetlands, providing protection and improving our knowledge of how our daily activities impact the watershed is greatly important. Use of vegetative buffer strips around all waterways, washing our equipment on a self-contained wash pad, and performing routine testing of water entering, used on and exiting our course is vital to our success.

Protecting groundwater, both on and surrounding the golf course, is vital to the environment and partnering with The Groundwater Foundation as a Groundwater Guardian Green Site has allowed The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay to become a better steward of the land.

Promoting the
Fostering a positive habitat for wildlife is part of golf’s mission.
©paul carter


Being environmentally conscious and incorporating programs and practices on your golf course is great, but if the story stops there and there is little to no outreach to tell others what you are doing and why, then some of the benefit is lost. At Harrison Bay we try to promote our partnership with these great organizations in every way possible. From signs and displays in the clubhouse, to including their logos on our letterhead and business cards, to including the benefits of certification in presentations we give, we are constantly trying to impress on others the benefits and rewards that come with having our course certified. Several years ago, we placed the logos of these three organizations on our course flags. What better way to get in front of golfers than to place the information on the one thing most every golfer will touch at some point during their round. Now you might think, “How is that getting the word out to the golfer?” You would be surprised at the number of individuals who have inquired about the logos on the flags and what they mean in relation to the course. In many cases, it is the subtle approach that gets people’s attention the most and this project has been a great way to promote the partnership.

We all need help sometimes. A little information or knowledge. A little support or encouragement. A little recognition. Independent third-party certification programs, like the ones highlighted above, give all these to the properties and superintendents who participate in their programs. Being a certified golf course from any of these organizations shows that you are concerned about the environment and your community, you are interested in gaining knowledge of how you can be a better steward of the land, and provides credibility and backing to the environmental programs you and your staff are performing on the course.

Paul Carter, CGCS, is the superintendent at The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay in Harrison, Tenn.