Tara Donadio: How Audubon International greens golf

Tara Donadio
ShutterstockAudubon International/GreenBiz
Director of Cooperative Sanctuary Programs Tara Donadio, Audubon International.

Audubon International is a 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving animal and planet life where people live, work and play. A big part of its work takes place on golf courses. Many people work and play on them — and live near them, as well.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Tara Donadio, Audubon's director of cooperative sanctuary programs, about the organization’s work to educate golf course superintendents, top management as well as touring pros on the importance of forward-thinking environmental stewardship. 

Lew Blaustein: OK, first things first: What is the difference between Audubon International and the Audubon Society?

Tara Donadio: We get this question all the time. The Audubon Society was founded over 100 years ago with the mission of conserving and restoring natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife.

Audubon International (AI), based in Troy, New York (near Albany), works with golf courses, parks, resorts and communities in the U.S. and more than 30 foreign countries to plan and implement sustainable natural resource management. Golf represents the biggest chunk of our work.

Blaustein: How did that come to be?

Donadio: It was really at the impetus of our founder, Ron Dodson, now retired. He was both a big golfer and had worked in environmental management. He saw the connection — and wanted to make "out of bounds" on the golf course a place where wildlife could flourish.

Blaustein: Out of bounds — a place where I spent a lot of time during my ill-fated attempts at golf. But seriously, that is a great marriage between one’s environmental career and one’s passion. How did you get into the green-golf world?

Donadio: My academic background is in the environmental world — I got my bachelors degree in environmental science from SUNY Albany and my masters in environmental policy from American University in Washington, D.C.

Blaustein: You have strong environmental credentials, indeed. Are you a golfer?

Donadio: I am not a golfer at all so it’s kind of surprising that I ended up in this position. In fact, I was a bit hesitant about taking this job at first because I didn’t see the fit between golf and sustainability. Three years into it, I absolutely see the fit.

First of all, our relationships with course superintendents across the U.S. and around the world, which are exemplary, demonstrated that, for the most part, they get the importance and value of making their courses greener, especially in terms of animal habitat preservation and expansion.

Blaustein: How do you get to the course superintendents?

Donadio: AI is well known in the golf industry by this point, especially among the superintendents. In fact, golf courses reach out to us to help them with their greening programs, which is great. We also have a very strong relationship with the United States Golf Association or USGA.

Blaustein: Which, from its mission statement, "promotes and conserves the true spirit of the game of golf as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions." They also manage the U.S. national championships, including the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open. That is a great organization with which to have a relationship.

What about the PGA Tour? Are you working with the organization that represents elite pro golfers?

Donadio: Yes, we have a relationship with the PGA Tour but it’s a bit less developed than with the superintendents and the USGA at this time. It’s one we’re working hard to grow as there is a great need to make pro golfers aware of and interested in sustainability.

Blaustein: Speaking of the pros and the USGA and the U.S. Open — which takes place [in June] at the venerable Oakmont Country Club in Western Pennsylvania — the 2015 U.S. Open was contested for the first time at Chambers Bay out in Washington. The course came in for a lot of criticism from the media and fans and some pros for its brownish look.

Donadio: Yes, the grass at Chambers Bay was brownish because of environmental management as course superintendents, working with AI, used grasses and plants native to the Pacific Northwest and limited water use. That this was seen as a negative is a challenge to AI. We have to educate golf fans that brown isn’t necessarily bad.

Blaustein: So how do you do that? My very unscientific polling of friends of mine who are into golf reveals that awareness of the greening-of-golf movement is very low — except among those friends who read GreenSportsBlog, of course.

Donadio: That’s not a surprise. So far, we’ve done well working with the superintendents and with some of the players. One of our top goals is to push the green-golf story to the golf media. To date, the golf media has not really covered this at all.

Blaustein: How do you think the golf media would react to green golf?

Donadio:  Very likely they’d react positively, especially if we link what superintendents are doing to things that golf fans, that anyone cares about, like the drought in California and endangered species. Fans want this; superintendents want this; players want this.

While we haven’t done formal survey research on what golfers and viewers think of the greening of golf — and it’s something we need to do. Anecdotal evidence shows that if they know about it, they’ll be in favor of it.

Blaustein: I would love to see what that research shows. So now we know that AI works with the USGA and superintendents and that there’s a general positive vibe surrounding the Greening of Golf. Tell our readers what it is that AI does to help in this effort.

Donadio: We provide education for course superintendents in three key areas: Water management; chemical use; and wildlife habitat. Our goal is, of course, to help them improve their environmental practices on all three metrics. We provide a manual, offer sustainability certification for member courses that go through our protocol, and provide a hotline for course superintendents. Superintendents can take webinars on water use, such as "Greening Your Facility on a Budget." 

Blaustein: My guess is most of your members are public courses.

Donadio: Absolutely — it’s about 60 percent public, 40 percent private at this point.

Blaustein: How many member courses does AI have? And how much does it cost to join?

Donadio:  We have about 2,000 members. In the U.S. membership costs $275 per year; for international members it’s $375.

Blaustein: That is a terrific deal; I have to say. Of AI’s 2,000 or so members, how many are certified?

Donadio: About 900, with about 50 courses becoming certified each year.

Blaustein: What does it take to become certified?

Donadio: Courses have to go through a multi-step protocol to prove they’ve adopted sustainable behaviors. Some don’t qualify on the first go-round but they can re-apply. We also have a higher level of certification for new courses.

Our Signature Program has been around for 20 years. Program Director Nancy Richardson manages it. She works with new courses before a shovel is put into the ground to make sure sustainability is core to its DNA. Site visits and ongoing consultations are part of the process. There’s a $7,500 one-time fee with a $500 per year management fee.

Blaustein: That makes tremendous sense. How many courses are in the Signature Program?

Donadio: About 70 courses at present and we expect to grow that number. The Signature Program has different levels of certification: bronze; silver; gold; and platinum. Chambers Bay achieved silver certification through the Signature Program.

Blaustein: No matter the certification type or level, how does AI go about measuring success on the part of applicants?

Donadio:  On water, we conduct water quality tests and look at how a course manages water. We measure chemical usage against a set of standards. And we measure how a course does in allocating land for animals and plants.

Blaustein: What are some of the more famous courses certified via the basic program?

Donadio: I think Pebble BeachBethpage on Long Island and Pine Valley in New Jersey would qualify as famous courses. And they’re all certified.

Blaustein: How about the host of the 2016 US Open, Oakmont?

Donadio: Oakmont is a member but not yet certified. We are looking to change that.

Blaustein: I think the USGA should say to courses that want to host their premier events, "Hey, you want to host? Get AI Certified first and then we’ll talk." Looking ahead three to five years down the road, where does AI want to be with its Greening of Golf programs?

Donadio: As mentioned earlier, we want awareness of our strong Greening of Golf story to be exponentially higher than it is now. So we’ll need to go through the media to reach fans and golfers, both pro and everyday players. Hopefully we will have found out that golfers accept the natural look (could mean brown fairways) of golf courses along with the pristine.

Blaustein: Hey, many courses in the U.K. look brown and people keep playing them. OK, last question: Has AI tackled climate change in its programs with superintendents and in its communications with golfers? I think the perception out there is that golf is a rich man’s/woman’s sport and that rich folks are more likely to align with the Republican party in the U.S. and the GOP is, for the most part, in the climate change denial/skeptic/it’s no big deal camp.

Now, recent surveys show that more than half of Republicans now believe climate change is real (hallelujah!) but perception is reality. What says AI?

Donadio: While we haven’t made climate change a focus in the last 25 years, AI is looking at moving on it in the near future. So add that to our to-do list.

Blaustein: I’d put it right at the top.

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