Cleveland Metroparks Acacia Reservation is the site of a former Donald Ross-designed private golf course.
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On a hazy, humid August day when the landscape at the former Acacia Country Club golf course in Lyndhurst, Ohio, might have been dotted with golf balls and players focused on the game, a couple sits on a picnic bench and admires swaths of wildflowers. A bicycler pedals on a path originally designated for carts. An excited golden lab bounds across wild grasses, his own leash in mouth—a portrait of pure, good ‘ole outdoor fun that bucks the refined history of a club that opened in 1921 and was designed by the esteemed Donald Ross.

Acacia, today, is a reservation — not reservations-only.

The 155-acre urban greenspace across from a high-end shopping mall, along a heavily populated corridor in a desirable Cleveland suburb, is now home to more than 460 different plants, animals, birds and insects. The branch of Euclid Creek that rolls through the property has 10 times as many fish. More than 1,000 trees have been planted and today the space is evolving back to upland forest, marsh and meadow.

“It’s amazing just how fast nature is really taking over,” says Cleveland Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman, who is experienced in golf course turf management as a 25-year GCSAA member. “The land looks natural, the juxtapose of a golf course that is pristine, manicured and not a blade of grass out of place.”

People are attracted to the new Acacia.

The newly acquired reservation generated more than a half-million visitors in its first five years, even while the bulk of the park was closed for restoration activity. It’s safe to say that few of those guests would have had access to the gated country club before its purchase by Virginia-based The Conservation Fund, which paid $14.75 million and then gifted the property to the Metroparks, which serves as a steward upholding a deed that outlines sustainable specifics. For example, the park can contain no more than two acres of impervious surface.

The Conservation Fund had its eye on the property for a good year before the purchase in 2012. Developers did, too, including the City of Lyndhurst, which countered with $16 million fronted by a developer. The plot was prime for economic development. Instead, it preserves a legacy in a surprising way.

In spring 2018, the last fencing was removed from inside the Acacia Reservation as the Metroparks continues an ecological restoration master plan. “It has been received with huge, positive public response,” says Jennifer Grieser, senior natural resources area manager, urban watersheds for Cleveland Metroparks. Grieser adds that her colleague who removed the course’s drain tile and installed a diverse native plant mix fields questions from visitors who want to know how to create the look in their own backyards. “They’re asking, ‘Which mix did you use?’ and, ‘What plant is that?’”

It’s likely the 400 Acacia Country Club members standing when the course was sold did not expect billowing grasses to replace manicured greens. The transformation makes Acacia Reservation a national success story of not only how urban land can be restored to its natural state, but also how golf courses can capture opportunities to work ecologically-minded plans into their own courses.

“We are still able to offer a high level of play while our golf course managers work with our natural resources managers to determine how to handle roughs more naturally,” says Grieser, relating that the Metroparks operates eight golf courses on its various reservations in Northeast Ohio. “Our golf course managers really do try to be mindful of environmental impacts.”

Practices at Acacia Reservation are helping course managers at the eight Cleveland Metroparks golf courses.
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Letting the Land Go

The gradual process of transforming Acacia into a reservation is one lesson superintendents can take away from the project. Creating natural spaces takes time, planning and a mindset shift. David Donner, the course manager at Metroparks Seneca Golf Course and a beekeeper hobbyist, admits that not every golfer is thrilled to see wild grasses in the roughs. But do spaces where errant balls collect really need to be mowed?

At Seneca, a 27-hole facility in suburban Broadview Heights, the team is looking at the “roughs outside of the roughs” and areas that separate the property’s three courses. “While golfers tend to get bent out of shape about natural areas, we are trying to explain why we have those places,” Donner says.

The benefit of no-mow zones on the course: “We’ve saving fuel, saving man-hours, saving inputs like herbicides and giving more places for wildlife to go,” Donner says.

His pro tip: “Look at areas on the course that are not being used. If you are manicuring a space that isn’t in play, take a look at turning that into a more natural situation.”

That could be as simple as letting the land go.

Donner points to Acacia’s newfound wild landscape and how quickly the land “repaired” itself following generations of careful turf management. “It’s amazing and interesting that a few months after letting the course go, how fast nature moved back in,” he says. “You saw maple trees sprouting in the fairways right away.

“There have been many courses in the area that have closed,” he continues, supporting Zimmerman’s remark that the region simply has more golf courses than players these days, which built an even stronger case for converting the urban land back to nature. “It’s amazing to see the transition even if nothing is done to the land.”

Meanwhile, at Acacia Reservation, there were detailed plans in place to turn the land back over to nature. The process began the year after the sale closed, in 2013, with a bioblitz to take inventory of the land. “We recruited experts and our in-house staff to document anything living that was out there, from plants to insects to mammals and birds,” Grieser says.

Two bioblitzs were conducted at Acacia that year — one in spring, and another in late summer. “Those bioblitzes along with vegetation monitoring plots, and stream and lake surveys, really painted a good picture of what was the near-term after golf cessation,” Grieser says.

Next came efforts to find out what was underneath the course: the infrastructure.

“We reached out to the course’s previous managers and past superintendents to inquire about how it had been managed — if there were any drain tile maps, irrigation maps or other nuanced information that could help us understand the landscape more,” Grieser says.

There wasn’t much information available.

So next came some test pits of the soil. “It was indicative of wetlands, and we really hadn’t anticipated that because there were no wetlands on the property — and that was largely because of the unnatural ways that water was being managed with the drain tiles,” Grieser says.

Indeed, the property was intended to include marshland: wetland smack dab in traffic-jammed suburbia.

Taking a cue from this, superintendents and golf course managers can take an extensive look at irrigation practices and how to water spaces on the course that do not get play. Donner relates how the Metroparks’ Seneca course renovated its irrigation system to single-row irrigation — with a double row here and there. “We are being more considerate of our water,” he says.

Seneca ended up “rescuing” some of the irrigation heads from the former Acacia to use. Donner can’t say exactly how much water the course saves with the new irrigation system, but the point is that efforts are in progress to minimize the course’s impact on nature. That includes installing more drought-tolerant turf types that require less watering, he says.

Signage at the entrance of Acacia Reservation makes visitors aware of the land’s golf history.

Buzzing with Sustainability Efforts

Acacia Reservation has been busy with citizen scientists and volunteers, Zimmerman says. “We are most proud of the fact that it’s a living laboratory — an evolution of a restoration project,” he says. Zimmerman adds, “It will take 40 more years before we have mature trees.”

But every year — and every month — the reservation grows more steps away from its former golf course self. “What’s unique about this is that it’s going to grow with the generations of Clevelanders from what it was as a private country club to what it will become as a high-quality Metroparks reservation,” Zimmerman says.

Grieser says the team was careful not to “overpromise a biological response” to its restoration efforts right off the bat. But significant watershed restoration activities have resulted in measurable positive impact. Acacia Reservation is part of the Euclid Creek Watershed, but the stream in its golf course days ran deep and straight. Erosion was a problem. A portion of the creek was buried by a culvert and ran under land.

“We dug a new channel with shallow banks and curves, so it’s more of a natural habitat with pools and riffles, and it’s very connected to the floodplain,” Grieser says. “The whole goal was to reduce downstream erosion and improve water quality, because when a stream can get out on to a floodplain, it can settle out the pollutants — and it also settles out its own energy, so that is how it reduces that downstream bank erosion.”

The culvert was removed in a “stream daylighting” effort. “We were able to recreate a more natural stream bed,” Grieser says. The impact: Fishery biologists report 10 times the amount of fish.

On a smaller and simpler scale, courses that include no-mow areas in roughs and unused spaces can help “clean” stormwater by giving it natural spaces to settle out pollutants. On other Metroparks courses, Grieser says, “We are also being more mindful applying only what chemicals are needed and being aware that they aren’t putting fertilizers out that are just going to get washed off a couple minutes later.”

And, some golf course managers in the Metroparks system, including Donner, have taken up beekeeping on the courses. “We have been installing pollinator plots alongside some fairways, too,” Grieser adds.

Donner maintains a beehive outside his shop, by a pond on the course. It produces honey, which can be used at the restaurant. And aside from the bees, the course is incorporating nesting boxes and Donner expects people will eventually find bluebird trails on the property. All of this is in effort to improve sustainability. But, Donner acknowledges, “We are doing this strategically so we don’t slow up play on the course.”

Indeed, the key is to have a plan — and begin working it.

Nature, when allowed, will do its thing.

Today at Acacia Reservation, the land is a welcome respite in a highly populated urban setting. Grieser likes to walk along the northern end of the property, where the old cart pathway comes to a V. “You can see the wetland meadows and I love looking at the various flowers that are in bloom during the seasons,” she says.

Another “hidden spot” she enjoys is along the Acacia treeline on its western end, where it overlooks Euclid Creek. “You can peer down over the floodplain and see Dillard’s [department store] off in the distance,” she adds. “It’s a funny reminder of the setting, yet you’re in this maturing forest.”

In many ways, golf courses built in natural spaces are also providing players with that funny reminder. While the grass is greener on the fairway, they are borrowing space from the great outdoors.

Kristen Hampshire is a Cleveland-based writer and GCI contributor.