Wild things

“When you're a person who loves nature and your job has an effect on making it better in your niche of the world, well, that's a wonderful feeling,” exclaims Jeannine Fitzgeralds, naturalist for the golf division of the city of Aurora, Colo.

Fitzgeralds' work began when Joe McCleary, superintendent for Saddle Rock Golf Course in Aurora, heard about the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses through the U.S. Golf Association (USGA). The city of Aurora hired her as the horticulturist for the seven city-operated public golf courses. McCleary wanted to begin the program immediately and Fitzgeralds was the key player to have on his team.

International Audubon considers the natural environment of golf courses an ideal setting for wildlife sanctuaries. They estimate that, on an average course, non-playable areas left in woods and waterways make up 70 percent of the property. When overgrown “corridors” are provided to link the protected areas, allowing the animals to sneak from one to another, the native wildlife and vegetation flourish. At the same time, the course management is reminded to practice erosion control, safe use of chemicals and fertilizers and address environmental issues in terms of what effect they'll have on the environment down the road.

With the support of the USGA, in 1991 International Audubon initiated the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses. Today in the United States, 354 courses have met the requirements to receive designation as Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries.


The first step toward earning a certification is to put together a team to meet all of the necessary objectives and help keep track of the project in general. You can use club members, local experts and even general members of the community who are simply interested in conservation. Next, perform a site assessment and develop an environmental plan. Take an inventory of the property and explain current environmental procedures, documenting them with photos.

Fitzgeralds' team discovered in their inventory process that they already met most of the requirements of several steps. McCleary, being an environmentalist, chose options during the original construction of Saddle Rock Golf Course that left much of the 240 acres in its natural formation. His initial agenda included plans to fertilize organically and to use disease-resistant native turfgrasses. These forward-thinking ideas coincided with the ideals of the program.

Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton, Ind., is built around wetlands, and Don Ewoldt, director of golf course maintenance operation, felt it would be a good candidate for the program. Aware that his bosses are environmentalists, Ewoldt mentioned the program and, even without any discussion, they said, “Go for it.” He formed a project team made up of members of the club, including a wetland biologist and a professor of ornithology (the study of birds).

Sand Creek is a private club and, according to Ewoldt, is fortunate to have the financial resources on hand to accomplish larger projects. One of these involved installing 120 birdhouses on the course. An already-scheduled stream restoration project also fit nicely into the certification program by creating a corridor across the golf course for the animals. This project cost $550,000 and just happened to be going on at the time of certification.

“It took us a year and a half to complete the certification process. We were the first golf course in Indiana and the 59th in the United States to become certified,” Ewoldt says.

Bob Taeger, golf course superintendent for Village Country Club in Lompac, Calif., read about the program and didn't need approval to get started or to spend the $100* for membership.

“Converting back to a natural environment means doing less to the environment,” explains Taeger. “We have two lakes and a couple creeks that create a natural ring around the course. It cost more in manpower to trim the grass close for a manicured look than to leave it naturalized.”

Village Country Club currently is undergoing de-watering under its oak trees. “Oaks hate water and those standing in it are dying,” Taeger explains. “We have removed irrigation from two acres of turf. There was a cost to change the sprinkler heads and playability is different, however I haven't had too many complaints.”


Certification isn't an overnight process. Extensive paperwork is involved. “By the time I completed the inventory, I'm ashamed to admit that I felt overwhelmed and set it aside for two years,” Taeger confessed.

However, he didn't overlook protecting the environment. He used suggestions of the support material. After working on the program “unofficially” for two years, a club member approached Taeger about installing bluebird houses on the golf course. The member became enthusiastic when Taeger explained the Audubon program, and volunteered to be typist and photographer.

“I feel bad that I waited two years to begin certification,” Taeger says, “especially since enlisting a volunteer to take care of typing is a recommendation of the program.”

It took two more years to achieve designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Taeger says having a volunteer to help him was a great motivating tool.

“The paperwork was extensive,” said Fitzgeralds. “I would recommend making it a winter project. However the photography background needs to be accomplished in the summer while everything is green.” It took several months to complete her paperwork, working in “clumps” of time.


Because McCleary laid the groundwork for Fitzgeralds, many program requirements for certification were already in place. However, they needed to involve the golfers and community in the project. To achieve this, they set up bird watcher walks to generate community interest. Participants include golfers, moms with preschoolers and entire families. Another activity designed to prompt community involvement is the bird watcher adoption program. Seven dollars buys a bird box, which the golf course maintenance crew places on the course. The adoptee's responsibilities include cleaning the boxes and observing the activity of the nesting birds. They record the activity on an observation sheet, which they turn in yearly to receive a new sheet. Fitzgeralds sends the completed sheets to Audubon International.

Another certification program requirement is to generate public awareness through education. Ewoldt accomplished this by paying for the Audubon membership of 10 local schools that interact with the golf course project through field trips for the students. Ewoldt says the public is very involved in wetland and stream restoration across the state. Because clean water is so rare, the Department of Natural Resources uses the golf course's streams as examples by showing how larvae cling to the bottom of rocks in the stream.

The wildlife trails at Sand Creek Country Club aren't accessible to the public. However, the club owns private property south of the course that is open to the public for nature walks.

Ewoldt keeps club members updated by using display boards in the clubhouse with pictures and up-to-the-minute news of what's happening on the course.

Taeger also is creative with his publicity. A member volunteered to create a club Web page and dedicates approximately 90 percent to the Audubon project. He also began a member newsletter with up-to-date news from the protected areas. They appreciate the “heads-up” on what to watch for as they golf and walk the trails.

Fitzgeralds is very active in public awareness of the program. In addition to displays for the clubhouse showing progress and animal activity, she works with the local school systems. Because they are unable to bring the children to the sanctuaries due to lack of funding, Fitzgeralds takes the sanctuary to them.

Her program includes photographs of the animals and dialogue at the students' level about the environment, recycling and conservation. She recycles old golf balls by helping the students construct snakes and caterpillars out of tubes of fabric and golf balls.

Saddle Creek Country Club also allows Eagle Scouts to work on projects at the golf courses. One of the scouts planted trees and wildflowers, put up birdhouses and installed irrigation. Another put up nest boxes for solitary bees that are pollinators.


“Our goal is to restore the out-of-play areas to their natural environment,” says Ewoldt. “It feels great when we accomplish a small goal within the overall scope of the project, then to see a member's excitement when they observe a coyote chasing a fox across the course or birds on the nest.” His superintendents and maintenance workers get excited about these sightings as well, enjoying their jobs more because of the variety the program adds.

Working with this program gives the superintendents specialized training, too. Wherever they work a course, they'll be able to initiate or oversee a similar program.

“We have two goals,” says Taeger, “One is to reduce the input of anything unnatural into the environment and the second is to encourage the native wildlife to ‘restock’ the environment. Our members report more sightings of the animals, such as coyotes, deer and raccoons.”

“Our main goal is to keep the native animals here,” said Fitzgeralds. “There's no huge financial return, but you may have an effect that's five years down the road. As far as playability, a few golfers complain because they can't chase their balls into the protected areas. But people lost more balls in the lake when it was manicured. The tall grass at the edge blocks the balls from going in now. Our members love what we've done.”

Once Saddle Rock Golf Course received its certification, Fitzgeralds moved on to the second of the seven public courses, Murphy Creek Golf Course at Meadow Hills, Colo., to oversee its certification process.

“I didn't do this just to make the golfers happy, I did it for my own personal satisfaction,” explains Taeger. “My only regret is the two years I let it slide. For a city kid, this is the closest thing there is to being a farmer.”

* Membership is now $150.

Katherine Woodford is a Green Industry and business freelance writer in Moneta, Va., www.katherinesbylines.com.


Certification through the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program is designed to recognize and support golf courses that have worked to ensure a high degree of environmental quality for both people and wildlife. Certification demonstrates a course's leadership, commitment and high standards of environmental management.

In order to become certified, golf course managers must implement projects in six environmental quality areas and document their efforts. A “Certificate of Achievement” is granted upon completion of each category. When you achieve certification in all six categories, your course is designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.


  • Environmental planning

    Begin with environmental planning at your golf course. A Site Assessment and Environmental Plan form is provided to help you evaluate the golf course and current management strategies, define goals and priorities and outline objectives for achieving environmental quality in all areas.

  • Wildlife and habitat management

    This category encompasses the management of non-play areas to provide habitat for wildlife on the golf course, maximizing the use of the available space on the course for possible habitat.

  • Chemical use reduction and safety

    A comprehensive pest-control and safety program includes employing proper cultural and pest management practices; educating workers and members about responsible plant management and safety; and keeping a clean and professional maintenance complex.

  • Water conservation

    Water conservation is a key environmental concern for golf courses across the country. Conservation management includes maximizing irrigation efficiency; determining proper irrigation; reducing irrigated acreage; recapturing and re-using water; and incorporating drought-tolerant plant species.

  • Water quality management

    This category includes Best Management Practices to eliminate nutrient loading and minimize water quality problems; pond, stream and wetland management; proper equipment and chemical storage and handling; and water quality monitoring to ensure good water quality in surface and ground water.

  • Outreach and education

    Designed to help you and your golf course gain recognition and support for environmental practices and increase golfer and public understanding of wildlife and environmental quality on the golf course, this category includes both outreach and educational projects.

Provided by: Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System, 46 Rarick Road, Selkirk, NY 12158; (518)767-9051.


Bob Taeger, Golf Course Superintendent
Village Country Club
4300 Clubhouse Road
Lompac, CA 93436
(805)733-5195 Fax


Don Ewoldt, Director of Golf Course Maintenance Operation
Sand Creek Country Club
1001 Sand Creek Drive S
Chesterton, IN 46304
(219)395-5333 Fax

info@sandcreek.com (Subject Line: Attn: Don Ewoldt)

Jeannine Fitzgeralds, Naturalist for the Golf Division of the City of Aurora, Colorado
Saddle Rock Golf Course
21710 East Arapahoe Road
Aurora, CO 80016
(303)699-3919 Fax

Joellen Zeh, Staff Ecologist
Audubon International
46 Rarick Road
Selkirk, NY 12158
(518)767-9051 Ext 14


Dr. Kimberly S. Erusha, Director of Education
The United States Golf Association
PO Box 708
Far Hills, N.J. 07931
(908)234-9687 Fax


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