Special report: Going for the green

Twenty years ago, the public perception of many American golf courses was that they used too much water, too many chemicals and abused wildlife habitat to maintain their lush playgrounds. Genuine environmental stewardship in the industry often was obscured.

Then along came Audubon International, which offered to educate a golf course’s staff about sound conservation practices and then “certify” the course with a seal of approval that carried one of the world’s most recognizable environmental brands: Audubon.

The program proved successful, especially among upscale daily-fee and real estate-dependent courses that increasingly rely on marketing a green image. Today, more than 2,300 courses in the U.S. and 38 other countries are members of Audubon International, while roughly 900 claim, in the industry shorthand, to be “Audubon certified.”

But appearances can be deceiving.

Even after two decades, there is a widespread misconception – among golfers, the industry, news media and even within some environmental groups – that Audubon International’s certification programs are associated with and approved by the National Audubon Society.

They are not.

The 107-year-old Audubon Society, with some 400,000 members and 500 independent state chapters, disavows any connection to the smaller group, states that it has never certified golf courses and actually might oppose the development that Audubon International is “certifying.”

Yet the name confusion persists because Audubon International, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, fosters the mistaken identity. The group offers no disclaimer on its website, nor does it advise members to avoid perpetuating the confusion on their scorecards, course signage and news releases. The faux Audubon mystique clearly has aided Audubon International’s efforts to build membership and gain corporate funding while also giving the golf industry a marketing bonanza.

“It’s patently obvious what (Audubon International) is trying to do,” said the National Audubon Society’s chief executive, David Yarnold, an avid golfer. “It’s deliberate obfuscation.”

By sending $200 to AI and completing a self-reported application attesting to a golf course’s environmental stewardship – a process that even AI’s founder concedes is hardly rigorous and requires no initial onsite verification for most members – 833 courses are able to say they are Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. AI staff say another 80 courses in the more elite “classic” and “signature” programs do receive initial onsite inspections before they are certified – at a cost of $4,500 and $7,500, respectively – yet that leaves more than 60 percent of all Audubon-member courses uncertified.

“Audubon International simply has to do more rigorous certification and honest scrutiny of their basic-level cooperative sanctuary programs if they are going to be taken more seriously within the golf industry,” said Bud Smart, a freshwater ecology expert who has advised AI on its signature projects and more than 150 golf courses. “They need to be fully transparent.”

Participating course owners and superintendents often say the AI programs have encouraged some laggard courses to improve their care for the environment, while conceding that more progressive courses often merely document what they’re already doing and get certified. But critics say there also are AI-member courses that make little progress toward certification, were never certified by a credible environmental scientist or go years without being re-certified. Yet they happily use the Audubon name and draft NASCAR-like off its credibility and fame.

George Kelley, an owner of Stevinson Ranch Golf Club in California’s Central Valley, AI’s first “signature” course west of the Mississippi and home to solar-powered buildings and wilderness trails, says that while AI has raised environmental awareness, it has evolved largely into a marketing program.

“If they called themselves the XYZ environmental golf company,” said Kelley, a former touring pro in Europe and Australia, “they would not have had anywhere near the success they’ve had branding thousands of golf courses. . . . They’re well-intentioned, but it’s like you’re paying them a licensing fee (to use the Audubon name). And now that this has become profitable, they’re not going to pull the plug on courses by not certifying them. I’m a marketing guy, too, and it’s absolutely brilliant.”

But is it ethical?

Yarnold, a former San Jose, Calif., newspaper editor who has headed the Audubon Society since September 2010, says he has had to tell many disillusioned golfers that they’ve never played a course “certified” by his organization. “We’re not the ones out peddling certificates for $200, but the public thinks it’s us,” he said. “Reputation matters. This is an industry (golf) that runs commercials every weekend that tell kids how important it is to play by the rules.”

Despite his comments, Yarnold says he would not rule out working with AI one day if the younger group would develop tough, uniform standards, vetted by independent scientists and onsite visits before the Audubon name is attached. “But at the end of the day,” Yarnold said, “no matter what their standards are for certification, the transparency issue will still be there.”

Kevin Fletcher, AI’s director for 10 years, says his group’s website used to have a disclaimer about the Audubon name, but that it became a “distraction” about which most of his members were unconcerned. “That’s just not a headline item for us,” Fletcher said.

But it might not be so simple to dismiss.

Like many in his position, Michael Rushing, club director at Barton Creek Resort in Austin, Texas, said that participating in the “Audubon program” had given his resort’s environmental efforts immediate credibility. “(The Audubon name) says a lot about your property and the high standard of excellence you have. When someone sees this, they know you’re an environmental steward.”

When told that “International” had nothing to do with the Audubon Society, Rushing paused. “I’m not comfortable if they’re misrepresenting themselves,” he said. “I think the responsible thing to do is to make clear their mission, tell their story and why they latched onto that name.”

At the Marriott Corp., David Robinson, director of golf grounds for some 34 international hotel properties, said, “I’ve actually seen groups come in and say the reason they came in was because our course was Audubon certified. . . . The average customer doesn’t know the difference. I just say we’re Audubon certified. I haven’t given it much thought.”

Jeff Brown, a Lake Tahoe broker who sells upscale properties near two “Gold Audubon Signature” courses, said most of his clients are environmentally conscious San Francisco Bay-area residents whose “assumption” was that quality courses were “Audubon” courses. “It’s the expectation of consumers,” Brown said.

What might seem to be a fraternal spat over nonprofit branding actually raises questions as to whether the golf industry truly is committed to the environment.

Ron Dodson, a wildlife biologist who founded Audubon International, actually worked for the National Audubon Society for several years near Albany, N.Y., but was laid off in 1987. A veteran of the “Audubon Movement” in Kentucky, Dodson says he grew disenchanted with what he viewed as Audubon’s overzealous fundraising and litigation but wanted to continue his local work. Later that year, he revived the charter of a dormant state chapter called Audubon Society of New York, which in the mid-1990s adopted the name Audubon International.

In 1991, the National Audubon Society sued Dodson and the small state chapter in New York state court, alleging that Dodson had, among other things, caused “confusion and harm to (Audubon’s) credibility.” But the bigger Audubon lost that case when a state trial court judge ruled that the Audubon name had become “generic” over the years. However, Dodson’s chapter had not yet renamed itself Audubon International, so the court ruling doesn’t mention AI or address the resulting marketplace confusion.

Rob Wallace, a branding and trademark expert whose firm, Wallace Church, has represented dozens of the Fortune 100 companies, said that while the Audubon name is universally recognized, that does not make it part of the public domain.

“Nor does it weaken its owner’s rights to protect it,” Wallace said. “In fact, quite the contrary may be true. . . . Even if AI’s actions were in complete compliance with the National Audubon Society’s vision and mission, the public might easily assume that the NAS is developing golf properties and other land-use programs. This can dramatically affect potential contributors’ perceptions of NAS’ integrity and greatly damage the brand.”

That brand integrity already is facing challenges on another front: corporate partnerships.

Among AI’s sponsors are chemical giant DuPont and cement maker LaFarge, both with checkered environmental histories.

Dodson hardly is unique among environmentalists when he says he thinks working with some of the nation’s largest polluters is “like evangelism for missionaries,” but what troubles the Audubon Society and other critics is how far Dodson wants to take his questionable Audubon branding. He already has granted membership to cemeteries, housing developments, the Hollywood Bowl, the Smithsonian Institution and the cities of Eufaula, Ala., and Coconut Creek, Fla.

Imagine “Audubon-certified” shopping centers, chemical refineries or highways.

“We wouldn’t discriminate,” Dodson said.

“But if you don’t discriminate,” said Mark Massara, a former Sierra Club attorney who once sued a carmaker over its use of “Sierra” and lost, “he will destroy the brand.”

Dodson, 63, has heard this criticism for years but maintains he has worked with numerous state Audubon chapters without any rancor. One of National Audubon’s former presidents, John Flicker, famously said, when asked whether he was bothered by AI certifying golf courses: “Nah. The more, the better. Anyone who uses a good name for conservation is good by me.”

Because of AI’s shortcomings, a new golf certification group from Scotland, the Golf Environment Organization, has a growing global membership, including the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and a markedly more transparent approach than AI’s. GEO requires a stringent onsite inspection by accredited scientists that may last three days or more before a course is certified, then requires continued progress to remain certified.

“It’s pretty vigorous, pretty intense,” said Christian Drake, assistant superintendent of Highlands (N.C.) Country Club, which was certified by GEO in June. “They wanted three years of figures on everything from chemical applications to kilowatt usage in every building at the club,” Drake said. “They inspected our creeks, our chemical and containment buildings, even asked our chef if he was recycling his products.”

GEO, which recently certified all seven courses at St. Andrews and has provided guidance for the planning and design of the 2016 Olympic golf course in Brazil, posts the inspection results of its certified courses and the credentials of its accredited inspectors.

Many golf-industry leaders continue to support Audubon International. Jeff Bollig, a spokesman for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said he thinks most GCSAA members “know who they’re dealing with” between the two Audubon groups and do not feel misled. David Phipps, the superintendent at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City, Ore., said in an email, “Is AI’s success due to the name? Yes, but not entirely. But that doesn’t discount the good that has come from it one bit.”

Kimberly Erusha, a senior director of the U.S. Golf Association’s Green Section who has dealt with Dodson since the early ’90s, says that while she would like AI to do onsite certification for all of its courses, she has no problem with AI’s name identity. “They’ve addressed those issues,” she said. An early supporter of AI, the USGA has given the group $1.9 million over a 20-year period and has $75,000 budgeted for 2012.

Dodson might never change his organization’s name, simply because the strategic confusion with Big Audubon has worked so well. But it’s hard to imagine that Dodson’s stance doesn’t also stem from personal pride.

Dodson had invested most of his adult life in the National Audubon Society and wildlife conservation when, one night in 1991, while he was having dinner with his wife and kids, he says he got served with the legal papers on Big Audubon’s lawsuit against him. He said he already had used some $25,000 of his own money, plus $20,000 from his father, to keep alive the New York state chapter, and even offered to keep it afloat on a volunteer basis from his home, but was rebuffed by National Audubon officials.

“My whole existence,” he said, “has been and will always be about getting people to know about the Audubon movement and know about birding. I was so naïve. . . . I never dreamed I could get sued.”

Federal records for nonprofit organizations indicate Dodson made $77,735 in 2009 as president of Audubon International – down from $86,890 in 2008. He also is or has been involved with other for-profit and nonprofit environmental consulting groups, such as The Dodson Group, Audubon Environmental Planning Services and the International Sustainability Council.

Dodson’s son, Eric, also a former AI staffer, has set up the unrelated, Florida-based firm, Audubon Lifestyles, that primarily does environmental certification of real-estate properties and appears to compete directly with AI. It has a website whose logo and font-style is nearly identical to Big Audubon’s, and Eric Dodson says his board consists entirely of family members.

Although AI’s leaders say AI struggles like most nonprofits in a stagnant economy, the Audubon brand and its air of integrity clearly has brought commercial success to many golf-course owners and land developers. Golf Turf Consulting states the obvious by explaining on its website: “Certified Audubon Signature properties have a market advantage in attracting the growing number of people looking for ‘green’ developments. . . . [and they offer] a distinct marketing edge over the competition [in] increased or faster sales, increased sales prices or member fees. . . .”

But as environmental advocacy intensifies across the country, many course owners need to realize there is a difference between feel-good green marketing and becoming true stewards of their land.

– Bruce Selcraig is a freelance writer from Austin, Texas

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