By Todd Woody | Bloomberg
In a rural Bay Area valley framed by hills covered in redwoods and oaks, the hawks spin over a native grass meadow where golf carts once rolled on acres of manicured, well-groomed turf. watered. The fairways are just flowers now, and the rest of a sand trap is a pop-up playground. Here and there, small stone obelisks bearing the words “San Geronimo Par 5” cross a riot of yellow and white petals like signposts to a lost civilization.
When golf courses close, vast swaths of open space suddenly become available for redevelopment. In the United States, they have been transformed into suburban housing estates, Amazon warehouses or even solar power plants. The San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, California is not so much developed as a state of the wild to build resilience to climate change and revive endangered salmon while creating a new public park.
The ancient 18-hole course sits amid a patchwork 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-struggling golf course was put on the market in 2017.
The nonprofit Trust for Public Land purchased the 157-acre property, now called San Geronimo Commons, for $8.85 million and is in the midst of a years-long project to uncover long-buried streams and to regenerate the fairways into wildlife habitat that will connect the restored landscape. to four surrounding nature reserves. Hiking trails and cycle paths to be built through the communes will connect the communities of the valley.
“This is a unique opportunity to recreate the historic floodplain and reconnect streams in a way that creates a much more climate-resilient ecosystem in this region,” said Christy Fischer, California Coastal Conservation Director of the North at TPL.
There are approximately 16,000 golf courses in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation, and 130 closed in 2021. A 2017 study by landscape architect Kelly Cederberg of the University of Arizona determined that 1,500 golf courses closed between 2006 and 2016. She found that of the 365 defunct courses examined in the study, 28 had been redeveloped as open space reserves or public parks.
Kristina Hill, an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, says she expects this trend to continue as drought, rising sea levels the sea, biodiversity loss and other climate impacts are intensifying.
“There’s going to be a lot of focus on golf courses along coastal areas and along rivers, and in areas that face high fire risks,” says Hill, who focuses on the climate adaptation. “Some golf courses will be under pressure to become a new land use that may be better suited to flood or fire conditions.”
In years to come, golfers may find a different state of play as courses adapt to a rapidly warming world. “It may be a shift to more wetland environments in coastal golf courses as water levels rise,” Hill says. “We could see more vegetation consisting of shrubs and trees. And that can change the layout and the way people play on a course.
The road to the coastal forests and beaches of Marin County passes through San Geronimo, and I had passed golfers in polo shirts countless times, a slice of suburbia amidst the rugged landscape and countercultural milieu of hamlets valley hippies. (In the 1960s, the golf course’s immediate neighbors included a commune whose members lived in the hollowed-out trunks of giant primeval redwoods.)
Over the past two years, devolving from the pristine greens of San Geronimo to unruly grassland has been like watching a nature documentary unfold in real time. But ecological restoration of a golf course is not just about letting nature take its course.
“It’s a big engineering challenge,” says Erica Williams, TPL’s San Geronimo Commons project manager, as she circles what used to be the golf course’s first nine holes and is now called San Geronimo Meadow. “There’s a lot of infrastructure under a golf course – pipes, culverts, drainage, electrical conduits.”
These systems are being removed as the project progresses, allowing creeks and streams to resume their natural path through the old golf course. We cross a bridge over the San Geronimo stream, which is flowing freely for the first time in a century. The removal of a 100-year-old dam and other obstructions on the creek by local environmental group SPAWN is helping the last coho salmon population survive on California’s central coast by allowing endangered fish to expand their spawning grounds in the former golf course as riparian habitat is restored. TPL’s acquisition of the golf course’s rights to 6.5 million gallons of water per year also helps the iconic salmon on its annual journey from the Pacific Ocean. Instead of irrigating 135 acres of lawn in a drought-stricken county, the water is now dedicated to creeks and salmon streams.
Looking east from the deck, a few man-made hills and dips of the golf course remain visible through the grasses, weeds, and wildflowers that have outgrown the turf. Others were removed to allow the creek to cross the restored floodplain during heavy rains. Trees are planted along the creek to provide the shade and leafy debris needed by the salmon. Further down the prairie, invasive grasses have been removed and replaced with native species that sway in the breeze.
“By bringing back the floodplain and restoring wetlands, we allow the land to retain moisture and become more resilient to wildfires and other climate impacts,” says Williams. “Reconnecting the creek to the floodplain improves wildlife corridors that allow animals to adapt and migrate.”
Not everyone subscribed to this vision. The golf course developers waged a years-long but ultimately unsuccessful legal and political battle to derail the rewilding project.
Williams says the restoration is currently in “those tough teenage years,” when the golf course turf has died and weeds have moved into areas where native grasses haven’t yet been planted.
To the north, on what was the last nine holes of the golf course, a tributary of San Geronimo Creek called Larsen Creek provides habitat for salmon and endangered rainbow trout. A long section of the creek, however, has not seen daylight since the 1960s, when it was diverted underground to supply the golf course’s irrigation ponds. In the years to come, TPL will uncover the creek and allow it to meander through what is now called Larsen Meadow.
Wildlife has begun to recolonize the commons. A gopher sticks its head out of a hole then quickly disappears as raptors hover overhead. Williams says bobcats have been spotted, and she recently received a report of a wandering black bear near the property.
The former golf course clubhouse and surrounding 22 acres are dedicated to community use. On the day of my visit, the 200-car parking lot was the site of a drive-thru food pantry. A community garden near the clubhouse could be enlarged. A conservation easement has been granted which permanently protects the commons from development.
TPL is also involved in restoring the former Rancho Cañada golf course in Monterey County, California to a natural state to revive a floodplain along the Carmel River.
“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 improving.”
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