Golf Course

Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses: More Relevant than Ever

Audubon International Sign

In a year that has felt both strangely compressed and vastly over-extended, demands on golf course superintendents may finally be leveling out. Before the 2020 season could even get underway, superintendents were thrown into uncharted territory. The season kicked off with uncertainties and confusion, only to be followed by golfers showing up in numbers not seen in years, chomping at the bit to play a round of golf, even if they had to give up their carts to do so.

But superintendents are not ordinary folk. As a profession, they’ve dealt with fires, weather extremes, pestilence, ever-changing regulatory requirements, and club member advisory committees. While other professions screeched to a halt, superintendents just rolled with the issues COVID-19 presented.

Unless you oversee a Sun Belt golf course with year-round play, you may be transitioning into your catch-up season. Seasonal course closing can make it easier to catch up on paperwork, on-course projects, and delayed maintenance. Superintendents might even be able to catch their breath and explore what it would take for their golf course to join the ranks of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf facilities, a smart move and an accomplishment well worth the time invested in achieving it.

Your Course is the Right Course

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf (ACSP) exists to educate and to certify golf courses in their efforts to protect the environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game. There are roughly 15,000 golf courses in the United States, but only about a thousand U.S. courses have completed the steps required to become a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Earning this certification positions a golf course to improve and reduce water and chemical use, reduce labor and fuel use and enhance the profile of the course within the local community, all while fortifying the superintendent’s résumé and salary negotiating power. And in case you’re thinking, “This isn’t for a golf course like mine,” reconsider that thought.

Peruse Audubon International’s Certified Member Directory. You’ll find a cross-section of golf courses and clubs. As Frank LaVardera, Audubon International’s Director of Environmental Programs for Golf, observed, “Our courses run the gamut. This is not an elitist program or a program defined by wealth. Our certified member courses represent facilities of all sizes and all budget levels. ACSP courses embody golf at all ends of the spectrum, including municipal courses, daily fee golf courses, and private, public and resort courses.”

Although the member courses are diverse in many ways, they are united by their commitment to environmental stewardship. “Most superintendents,” said Frank, “are already sensitive to the key issues. They are trained and educated. They are serious about implementing better practices to reduce irrigation and chemical use and create better habitats for native wildlife. They understand and appreciate the benefits of reducing the amount of managed turf, both environmentally and from a cost perspective.”

Not That Audubon

Before you start the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf certification, you may want to get buy-in from your course or club’s decision-makers. You’ll likely need first to educate them on “which Audubon group” has a certification program for golf courses.

tree swallows and birdhouse
tree swallows and birdhouse

Approximately five hundred organizations of all types use the word Audubon in their official name. Included among these groups is the century-old National Audubon Society. Established to protect birds and their habitats, this is the organization that most often comes to mind when people hear the name Audubon. It is not, however, affiliated in any way with Audubon International.

Audubon International, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, was established in 1987. The organization’s sponsors are

  • the United States Golf Association (USGA)
  • Aquatrols, a leader in the development in soil surfactants and other technologies to optimize soil-water-plant interactions
  • United’s Eco-Skies, a program committed to operating sustainably and responsibly
  • Anuvia, a manufacturer of high-efficiency sustainable bio-based fertilizers for agriculture, turf and lawncare.

Business supporters of Audubon International include many names golf course superintendents know well. PondHawk, M&T Bank Corporation, Toro, Bio Clear Water Solutions, Blue Planet Environmental, Growing Solutions, Sediment Removal Solutions (SRS), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and DrainGarde have all partnered in support of Audubon International’s programs.

Facilitating the Process and Supporting the Golf Superintendent

Most ACSP golf courses are part of the Basic membership program. Other programs include Classic membership, which is for courses undergoing renovations and Signature membership for new courses.

As part of the certification process, superintendents can expect a visit from Environmental Program Specialist Scott Turner or one of the other AI team members. These folks spend so much time visiting courses across the country, they’ve earned the unofficial designation, “Road Warriors.” Fortunately, these warriors are on your side. Their number one goal is to assist you and your crew earn and maintain your course’s certification.

Obtaining certification is probably less challenging than you expect. Remember, you are already paying close attention to many environmental issues. Plus, the staff at Audubon International stands ready to help you every step of the way.

Audubon ESD Chemical Building
Audubon ESD Chemical Building

You’ll start with a site evaluation, and then the ACSP will work with you to develop a plan that fits your facility’s unique setting, goals, budget, staff, and time. During the process, you’ll be expected to cover six key components: environmental planning, wildlife, and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and outreach and education.

Related: Interview with Jeffery Steen, CGCS at Big Cedar Golf

Finishing the process in six months is possible, but some plans require two years or more to achieve. Most golf courses earn their certification in about eighteen months. Frank explained, “When the process takes two or more years it is often because the course had to make capital improvements, such as upgrades around the maintenance facility.

In many cases, water quality is where the rubber meets the road. We want to understand where water enters the golf course and what condition it is when it leaves the course. In most cases water is usually in better shape leaving the property that it was when it entered. And if it’s not, we say, ‘let’s fix it.’”

Frank added, “Most importantly, we are here to work with the superintendent. This year, because of COVID-19, we did two site visits virtually. We’d never done it that way before, but it worked!”

Some superintendents who have completed the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf describe the process as a “labor of love.” Others point to the cost savings. Superintendent Paul Carter, CGCS at Bear Trace Golf Course at Harrison Bay, a State of Tennessee State Park Course said, “The changes that went into achieving Audubon International certification likely will save the state about $100,000 in yearlong course maintenance and has made the course a prettier, more natural and relaxing experience for golfers.”

Maybe you’ll do it for love. Maybe you’ll do it for money. But after everything you dealt with in 2020, surely achieving certification in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses would feel like a walk in the park.

Linda Parker has been writing professionally since the 1980s. With clients in finance, sports, technology, change enablement, resorts, and nonprofit global initiatives, Linda helps organizations communicate their stories in meaningful ways to the people they most want to reach. She has authored, ghostwritten or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books. Linda is a member of the Authors Guild and the Golf Writers Association of America. You can connect with her at

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