If you love golf and you value the environment, there are few jobs better than Golf Course Superintendent at North Oaks Golf Club. "Look, I've got the greatest job ever," says Brian Boll, who holds that title. "My office is unbelievable!"
That office is more than the golf course. It's all 167 acres that were once part of the James J. Hill Preserve, and Boll is passionate about maintaining them for a club that was founded on a commitment to protect their natural land, water, and wildlife for generations to come.
"North Oaks is unique because we are part of this tremendous flyway and waterway that includes Pleasant Lake," he says. "It's so cool seeing the different wildlife come through this travel way in different parts of the year."
And although some might expect that to require a balancing act between golf course management and his environmental responsibilities, Boll and the NOGC leadership feel they go hand-in-hand.
In recent years, the club has initiated extensive recycling and composting programs, embarked on the path to becoming a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, added tall grasses to improve the habitat near water, and built birdhouses and duck houses. This summer, they began a tree management program to promote the growth of hardier bentgrass on the greens that will increase playability and durability while requiring less water and plant protectants to stay healthy.
"We use best management practices so that we're going to have the least negative impact on the environment and often times we are actually able to improve the ecosystem," he explains. "The Club's mission statement is the overall driving force behind our focus on environmental issues."
Establishing an Audubon Sanctuary
Most prominent among the club's environmental initiatives is the push to become a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
The extensive certification includes six key environment components:
- Environmental Planning
- Wildlife & Habitat Management
- Water Conservation
- Chemical Use Reduction & Safety
- Water Quality Management
- Outreach & Education
North Oaks has already completed the first three categories, the next two are pending approval, and work is underway on the final category (Outreach & Education). Once the application is complete, Audubon International will make a site visit to complete the certification, recognition that will formalize the club's long-standing commitment to preserving and enhancing the environment.
"Our leadership is always evaluating the environmental impact and the impact to play and have been tremendously supportive about our efforts to improve the environment," Brian says.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the golf course over the past 75 years occurred this past winter. Freezing rain and extreme temperatures covered the course with a thick coat of ice for most of the winter, creating extreme challenges for the turf management team this spring.
Winterkill claimed significant portions of the greens and fairways, yet upon reopening, the club moved forward with a plan that will not only speed the course's recovery but will lead to environmental benefits for the future. The solution involved switching the greens from the annual bluegrass that had died to a much hardier annual bentgrass. While aggressively reseeding the affected areas, the plan also included selective tree removal to create more sunlight on those greens.
"We have apps that show us the path of the sun throughout the year," Brian says. "That pinpoints the trees that are reducing the sunlight to the putting surface, and allows us to identify some trees to create more morning sunlight." The decision to take down some trees was difficult, he admits, but the benefits will be substantial.
"Annual bluegrass can only survive for about 45 days under ice, whereas bentgrass is almost double that, up to 90 to 120 days," he says. Even more important, bentgrass requires less fertilizer, less fungicide to prevent disease development, and significantly less water. "We see a transition to bentgrass as not only good for golf but good environmentally, as well."
Wildlife On the Course
With its signature oaks and the club's attention to the environment, North Oaks continues to become home to more and more wildlife.
"As part of the wildlife management certification, we produce habitat for several different species of ducks and birds," Brian says. There are bird boxes for bluebirds, hen houses for mallards, and now there's a habitat for wood ducks, as well. "We have one member who helps us, I call him the wood duck whisperer, because all of a sudden, we went from no wood ducks to having several nesting pairs each spring in these houses."
The commitment to enhancing habitat goes well beyond those birds, though. "We always try to minimize any impact on the pollinators," Brian says, mentioning his fondness for a beehive in a neighbor's yard, near one of the golf holes. "And we always leave milkweed in our native grass areas so that can serve as a habitat for monarchs. If we are going to be treating some weeds or anything along those lines, it's important we mow those areas first so that there are no flowers available to reduce any impact to pollinators."
In essence, it all goes back to Brian's "office" – and his passion for creating the highest quality golf experience for the membership while protecting and enhancing the environment for its residents.
"We see how much wildlife is going through North Oaks," he says. "We want to maintain that wildlife diversity and possibly enhance that by some of the little nuances that we're able to do. "