Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, together with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative has partnered with CNN to drive awareness and education around key sustainability issues and to inspire positive action.
Golf courses, despite occupying large green spaces, are not necessarily good for the environment. Land is often cleared to make way for a fairway and maintaining the pristine turf often requires a lot of water, regular mowing and the spraying of fertilizers and pesticides – none of which is good for biodiversity.
In the US, with the number of course closures outweighing new openings every year since 2006, some are questioning how we should use these huge spaces – and asking whether, instead of golf, nature should be left to run its course.
Conservation nonprofits and local authorities are looking to acquire golf courses that have been abandoned due to high maintenance costs, low player numbers or other reasons, and repurpose them into landscapes that boost biodiversity and build natural defenses against climate change.
These spaces provide “huge opportunities from a conservation perspective,” says Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director of The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a conservation organization which is rewilding three of the state’s former courses.
“It’s a multiple win,” he continues. “You increase public access by taking former private golf courses (and) turning them into public properties … (you return) water back into rivers and streams and create a better habitat for the endangered species that we have in California.”
San Geronimo, California
Take San Geronimo, an 18-hole course in northern California’s Marin County, located on two waterways, which are home to endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout. Since the course’s construction in 1965, much of the water from San Geronimo and Larsen Creek was being diverted to provide irrigation for the course, affecting fish populations in the area, says Rodriguez.
In 2018, TPL purchased the 157-acre site and began converting the area back into its natural state: turning off the irrigation, removing culverts and dams built to capture water and starting to restore the habitat by planting native species. According to TPL, the rewilding process could take up to 10 years, but there are signs that wildlife is already bouncing back, with bobcats spotted roaming the area.
Rodriguez admits that initially TPL’s plan received some strong opposition from the public, especially from the golfers. But after efforts to involve locals in the design and opening hiking and biking trails in the area attitudes are changing. Now known as San Geronimo Commons, the site is a thriving center for the local community, he says.
Ocean Meadows, California
Further down the coast in Santa Barbara is another of TPL’s acquisitions: Ocean Meadows. The nine-hole course was built in the 1960s on the site of a wetland. To create it, developers filled the plain with 500,000 cubic yards of soil.
TPL purchased the 64-acre area in 2013 and started restoring the wetlands, removing the soil that had been added during construction and planting native vegetation. Since then, migratory birds have replaced birdies, and at least two pairs of threatened western snowy plovers are successfully breeding in the area’s mudflats.