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How to Fight Climate Change with an Old Golf Course

The California property was purchased by a nonprofit, which is converting it into a public park by revitalizing waterways and converting fairways into habitat for threatened salmon and other species.
Hawks circle over a field of native grasses in a rural California valley surrounded by redwood and oak-covered hills, where golf carts previously rolled over acres of meticulously tended, well-watered turf. Fairways are now nothing but flowers, and a pop-up playground has been built on top of a sand trap’s remains. Small stone obelisks bearing the inscription “San Geronimo Par 5” occasionally pokeamid a riot of yellow and white petals, resembling markers from a long-gone civilization.

When golf courses go out of business, large swathes of open space suddenly become available for redevelopment. In the United States, they have been transformed into suburban housing tracts, Amazon warehouses and even solar power plants. The San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, California, though, isn’t being developed so much as devolved to a state of nature to build resilience to climate change and revive endangered salmon while creating a new public park.

The former 18-hole course sits amid a mosaic of county, state and federal parks, including the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore. Opened nearly 60 years ago in anticipation of a planned— but never built— suburb, the financially troubled golf course went on the market in 2017.

San Geronimo Commons, a 157-acre property that the nonprofit Trust for Public Land purchased for $8.85 million, is currently undergoing a multi-year project to uncover long-buried creeks and rewild fairways into wildlife habitat that will connect the restored landscape to four nearby nature preserves. Communities in the valley will be linked by routes for bicycling and hiking that will be constructed through the Commons.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recreate the historic floodplain and reconnect the creeks in a way that creates a far more climate-resilient ecosystem in this area, says Christy Fischer, TPL’s Northern California coastal conservation director.

The National Golf Foundation estimates that there are 16,000 golf courses in the US, and 130 of them will be closed by 2021. A 2017 study by University of Arizona landscape architect Kelly Cederberg found that 1,500 golf courses closed between 2006 and 2016. Of the 365 abandoned courses that were looked at for the study, she discovered that 28 had been transformed into open-space preserves or public parks.
As drought, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, and other climate impacts worsen, says Kristina Hill, an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, she anticipates that tendency to continue.

There’s going to be a lot of attention paid to golf courses along coastal areas and along rivers, and in areas that face elevated fire risks, says Hill, who focuses on climate adaption. Some golf courses will be under pressure to become a new land use that might be better adapted to flooding or fire conditions.

Golf courses may change in the next years as they adapt to a planet that is warming up quickly.

It may be a change to more wetland environments in coastal golf courses as water levels rise, says Hill. We might see more vegetation that’s shrubs and trees. And that may change the layout and the way people play through a course.

San Geronimo is on the road that leads to Marin County’s coastal forests and beaches, and I had frequently passed polo-shirted golfers teeing off while driving through this suburban area amidst the valley’s untamed surroundings and countercultural hamlets. (In the 1960s, the commune that lived in the hollowed-out trunks of enormous prehistoric redwood trees next next to the golf course was a neighbor.)
The transformation of San Geronimo’s beautiful putting greens into untamed meadows over the past few years has been like witnessing a nature documentary take place in real time. A golf course’s ecological restoration, however, entails more than just letting nature run its course.

It’s a big engineering challenge, says Erica Williams, TPL’s San Geronimo Commons project manager, as she gives a tour of what was the front nine holes of the golf course and is now called San Geronimo Meadow. There’s a lot of infrastructure under a golf course — pipes, culverts, drainage, electrical conduits.

As the project moves forward, those systems will be taken out, allowing creeks and streams to once again follow their natural route across the former golf course. San Geronimo Creek is running freely for the first time in a century as we cross a bridge over it. The local environmental group SPAWN helped ensure the survival of the last remaining Coho salmon population on California’s central coast by removing a 100-year-old dam and other obstructions on the creek. This allowed the threatened fish to extend their spawning grounds into the former golf course as riparian habitat was restored. The iconic salmon’s annual trek from the Pacific Ocean is made easier by TPL’s purchase of the rights to 6.5 million gallons of water per year used by the golf course.

The water is now allocated to salmon-bearing rivers and streams in a drought-stricken area rather than irrigating 135 acres of turf.

From the bridge, looking east, a few of the golf course’s fake hills and hollows may be made out among the grasses, weeds, and wildflowers that have taken the place of the turf. Others have been eliminated so that the creek can pass through the restored floodplain when it rains a lot. To give salmon the shade and leafy debris they require, trees are being planted along the creek. Invasive grasses have been replaced with native species that ripple in the breeze further along the meadow.

By bringing back the floodplain and restoring wetlands, we’re allowing the land to retain moisture and become more resilient to wildfire and other climate impacts, says Williams. Reconnecting the stream to the floodplain enhances wildlife corridors that allow animals to adapt and migrate.

Not all people agreed with that vision. The supporters of golf courses fought a protracted, but ultimately fruitless, legal and political campaign to stop the rewilding initiative.
The restoration, according to Williams, is currently going through “those awkward teenage years,” during which the golf course turf has fallen off and weeds have colonized areas where native grasses have not yet been seeded.

A branch of San Geronimo Creek called Larsen Creek to the north, on what was the back nine holes of the golf course, offers habitat for salmon and endangered steelhead trout. However, a sizable portion of the creek has not been exposed to the light since the 1960s, when it was redirected underground to serve the irrigation ponds on the golf course.

TPL will expose the stream in the coming years and allow it to meander through what is currently known as Larsen Meadow.

The Commons are starting to be recolonized by wildlife. Raptors hover overhead as a gopher emerges from a hole and swiftly vanishes. Williams claims to have received reports of seeing bobcats and a black bear wandering close to the property.

The 22 acres surrounding the former golf course clubhouse are being set aside for community use. On the day I visited, a drive-through food pantry was located in the 200-car parking lot. The clubhouse’s neighborhood community garden might be enlarged. The Commons are now permanently shielded from construction thanks to a conservation easement that has been obtained.

In order to recover a floodplain along the Carmel River, TPL is also working to restore the former Rancho Caada golf course in Monterey County, California, to its original state.

Projects like these do more than just create habitat and connect people to nature, says TPL’s Fischer. These places create a sense of hope where people can see things getting better.

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