Design with environmental compatibility and wildlife enhancement in mind

Photos courtesy of Dudek Engineering and Environmental.

Dudek Engineering & Environmental in San Diego, Calif., is a design firm in areas of development such as storm water management, hazardous waste disposal and construction management, but it has become a leader in the design of natural resource sites around golf courses and parks. A big part of that is how to make turf fit in with surrounding habitat reserves, and it can show some striking results on some prominent Southern California golf courses in particular.

A “soft edge” between manicured turf and natural habitat can be accomplished with native grasses, such as these at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in California.

“What a lot of our work is showing is that golf courses and habitat can co-exist,” says Michael Sweesy, a principal of the company (www.dudek.com) and a habitat restoration specialist. Sweesy, who is a landscape architect by training, but also has a degree in biology and plant ecology, says that golf courses often adjoin or hold acreage inside sensitive habitat zones where they can make a positive or negative impact. By using certain principles and methodologies from the initial design stage, a company like Dudek can work with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Fish and Game Department, as well as the local governments, to enable the private developer to make a positive impact on the environment.

A golf course, after all, has a lot going for it, especially in areas where there has already been heavy development. It is always going to be more compatible to surrounding habitat and wildlife than a housing or industrial complex, for example, and it can serve as a facilitator for wildlife in particular. Native plants can be utilized in the landscaping, and with proper planning the course can become an asset to a reserve next door.

With natural habitat of the threatened California Gnatcatcher dwindling, this expanse of coastal sage scrub at Trump National Golf Club is providing a corridor to other populations.
A central wetlands created in the middle of The Crossings at Carlsbad in southern Orange County gives wildlife a pathway from turf to the rest of the golf course and beyond.

In looking at properties, Sweesy says the idea is to blend the golf course with the environment, and the first principle is to remember that if habitat is limited, wildlife, especially threatened species, will be affected. Therefore, if a facility can create habitat, it can not only meet government guidelines, but also pave the way for course development and move control of it to local government.

This was certainly true in the case of The Crossings at Carlsbad, a client in Carlsbad, Calif. Sweesy says his company was in early collaboration on this municipal course that would be completely surrounded by a 25,000-acre habitat management area, with one goal being the protection of the threatened California gnatcatcher. The result was a course carefully carved out of the landscape.

“It was almost like the course was built by helicopter because all of the surrounding land was to be preserved,” Sweesy recalls.

Another overriding principle in these matters is that when trying to preserve wildlife species, larger blocks of reserve land are better than small blocks. This not only minimizes the risk from catastrophes such as fire, but it also reduces exposure along the edges to any man-made interactions such as roadways, subdivisions or urban predators, such as cats.

Sweesy says that golfers are a good fit in these situations, because they pretty much stay within designated play boundaries, and designers can create special catch areas where golf balls will land when hooks or slices are hit. To make up for any lost habitat in these trafficked areas, larger blocks of reserve lands can be created that give wildlife larger, less risky pieces of habitat in other parts of the course. In mitigation plans, these kinds of measures are welcomed as means of keeping both developers and wildlife happy.

Another principle that is being widely adapted in course design is the use of wildlife corridors within the confines of a golf course. These corridors allow species to move freely, circulate the gene pool and maintain healthy populations. As part of a long-term strategy, it can also allow threatened species to recolonize a recovery area from “core reserve” blocks.

This photo of Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Southern California shows how much of a turf facility can be dedicated to wildlife habitat.
With turf interfacing nicely with natural habitat along the California coast, such as here at Trump National Golf Club, both golfers and wildlife are accommodated.

“It’s like a network of open-space areas,” Sweesy says, and it can even provide regional linkage. For example, at The Crossings, a central wetland area was specified, designed and built with the idea of allowing wildlife movement within the course, but it also gives wildlife access to other natural canyons on both sides in the management area. Golfers were managed with a split-rail fence along the wetlands, as well as “out of play” signs.

Another client, the Trump National Golf Club, hired Dudek Engineering & Environmental to restore and enhance 125 acres of gnatcatcher habitat, which is coastal sage scrub. In addition to providing wildlife crossing habitat, it also set up a 20-acre block of habitat right among one of the busiest golfing areas. It was a success, Sweesy says. Nineteen gnatcatcher pairs now nest on the site and adjacent areas, including one pair on that exposed 20-acre block.

Another principle is to keep preserved areas close together. Following the principles of biogeography, species are more susceptible to disruption when they are isolated. They like the ability to interact and overflow. At Trump National, the goal was to help remedy a poor situation for the gnatcatchers, whose populations are interrupted by the Los Angeles metropolitan area up and down its coastal range. Addressing this at Trump National, which lies on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was part of the mitigation plan.

“They wanted gnatcatchers to be able to circulate through the course and interact with others on the peninsula,” Sweesy says. Tagged birds proved that this effort was successful, with gnatcatchers from other areas migrating onto the course. Obviously, the threatened birds aren’t the only species that benefit.

A principle of biodiversity is essential in establishing or restoring a dynamic ecological habitat. Sweesy says that fairway or greens turf is not considered natural habitat, but it is considered “compatible” to habitat. Not only can wildlife utilize and cross turf, turf mitigation, in the form of the creation of new blocks of habitat or restoration of disturbed habitat, is often required as a condition of building the course. Reserves can be markedly improved with the advent of a golf course next door.

What about down at grass level? Dudek is also a leader in providing an interface as natural as possible between turf and native habitat. At Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, in southern Orange County, the company designed a band of native bunchgrasses that borders the fairways. The native grass transitions, after 5 to 10 feet, into coastal sage scrub. This acts as a buffer to both manicured turf and to natural habitat, as well as bringing a pleasing look as the height of vegetation goes gradually from turf to short grass to shrubs and then to transplanted native oak trees.

“It really is a very good look, as well as being mitigation,” he notes. It may actually be more of a management challenge to the golf course superintendent, as any super who has rabbit or waterfowl invasions can attest, but in the larger scheme of things, it is good for the habitat and the health of biological populations.

Sweesy points out that these principles are not just for golf courses. Anywhere turfed areas abut natural habitat, or, especially, ecological reserves, such techniques can be successfully applied. Turf at parks and schools in particular can be mitigated with these methods, even though there are extra complications in these active recreation areas. Factors such as noise, night lights, pet intrusions and weeds can make it more difficult to achieve success, but it is still important to focus on the principles during the negotiation and design process.

The reality is that these measures are generally no longer options in environmentally sensitive areas. They are required, through provisions of the Endangered Species Act, and the state laws and local regulations passed to meet its specifications. Funding from the private developer is the source of much of the work done, but money can come from various local, state, regional or federal sources in addition.

“It’s kind of the cost of doing business. It’s the law of the land,” Sweesy says.

There have been a lot of natural areas saved, enhanced or recovered because of nearby turf facilities, which occasionally hold a lot of acreage in affected areas. Blending the two makes the natural environment and the facilities themselves better places for the effort.

Don Dale is a freelance writer. He resides in Altadena, Calif.