2002: Business - Audubon impact felt at courses

By Scott Kauffman

For Ron Dodson, president and CEO of Audubon International, converting golf course developers and owners into environmental stewards has become his life’s calling.

Although unrelated to the better-known and pioneering National Audubon Society, Dodson’s group shares with it a similar mission: To improve quality of life and the environment through research, education and conservation assistance. But unlike some anti-growth extremists, Dodson is a career environmentalist who’s opted to align himself with the very interests often portrayed as eco-enemies.

“After 20 years (of advocacy), I realized we weren’t moving the agenda,” says Dodson, explaining why he formed Audubon in 1987.

Hence, the preaching to golf executives. He has set an ambitious five-year goal of signing up 50 percent of the 17,000 courses in the United States. Audubon has been making progress: Since 1991, membership has grown from 95 to 2,436 – with golf courses accounting for 86 percent of the total.

But the gains, as well as membership legitimacy, continue to draw criticism, mostly allegations that Audubon inclusion and its perceived environmental friendliness can be bought for a nominal fee with little substantive effort.

Nevertheless, the group’s growing impact on golf is difficult to deny. In some municipalities Audubon can “make or break” proposed course projects because their governments have adopted the group’s standards as prerequisites for construction. Some developers are even seeking Audubon’s blessing to help build not just courses, but entire communities that are environmentally friendly.

Such alliances are still rare, but even rank-and-file Audubon partners are discovering that membership has its privileges.

Good environmentalism, in essence, is simply good business, supporters say. Largely through reduced pesticide use and less maintained turf, Audubon’s certified programs help produce a more cost-effective operation, says John Kopack, superintendent of The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes in Longwood, Fla. But membership interest has been plagued by the perception that Audubon participation is costly and burdened with paperwork.

Dodson dismisses the naysayers, and explains the annual $150 dues constitute a necessary component of Audubon’s $1.8 million budget, of which $400,000 is earmarked for golf-related initiatives. Also included in the funds is a $100,000 annual grant from the U.S. Golf Association.

But if enforcement is an Audubon weakness, some of its local, state and federal allies are helping cover for it. In fact, they’re going a step further and spreading Audubon’s message.

Government officials in South Carolina, Arizona and Florida, for example, have adopted language that mandates course developments to use Audubon principles. In Lee County, Fla., there is a large tract of undeveloped land set aside for golf course development, but it only will be made available to a developer who complies with the Audubon International Signature Program, according to Kim Trebatoski, principal environmental planner for the southwest Florida county.

The Signature program requires developers to adhere to the most comprehensive and strictest set of Audubon guidelines during planning and construction, and after the course opens. Participants pay $9,000 to $12,000 to join the program and a $500 annual membership fee. At last count, 38 courses have been designated as certified Signature courses.

Additionally, 436 courses have met basic Audubon certification, meaning superintendents implemented programs in the following: environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical-use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and outreach and education.

“We don’t get any extra rounds of golf out of (Audubon status), and we don’t get any extra members,” Kopack says. “What Audubon International is giving us is the opportunity to showcase our environmental stewardship.”

Increasingly, developers of all shapes and sizes are coveting a blessing from Audubon. Recently, the group has formed agreements with a host of entities, including land grant universities, cities, a large-scale developer and a federal agency, to execute its newest initiative – “sustainable communities.”

In other words, Audubon is now in the business of putting its stamp of approval on entire communities – even cities in some cases.

WCI Communities Inc., a $900-million developer of high-end, Florida residential projects with nearly 500 holes of golf, signed last year a $1.4 million contract with Audubon to take its principles beyond the golf course. The agreement covers natural resource conservation and protection, water quality and conservation, habitat protection and energy conservation.

By setting an environmental agenda as a friend, not a foe, Audubon is establishing itself in golf. Now it appears on the cusp of transcending the game.

“Golf is just the tip of the iceberg,” says superintendent Tim Hiers, whose Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., is one of three Gold Signature courses in the world. “People at the highest levels are talking to Audubon.”

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