Good Dirt: How Soil Compaction Could Affect the Future of Disc Golf

By Josh Woods ~

Cover art
Soil compaction and visible tree roots are common on popular disc golf courses. Photo Ronald Harkey.

Try this: Search google for “environmental impact.” In the results, you’ll quickly see that almost everything humans do affects the environment, and that many of these impacts have been carefully studied by scientists.

Research on disc golf’s influence on the environment is still developing, but there are at least two studies, published in peer-reviewed academic journals, that examine a little-known problem that is right beneath our feet.

Assessing soil compaction, erosion and vegetation loss

In one study, Trendafilova and Waller (2011) looked at three related aspects of ecological degradation on disc golf courses, including soil compaction, soil erosion and vegetation loss. As illustrated below, soil compaction occurs when the density of the soil increases and its porosity decreases. Erosion involves soil and rock moving from one place to another. Vegetation loss is a decrease in grass and green cover due to trampling.

Soil compaction
Image source: CANR at the University of Delaware

Trendafilova and Waller (2011) measured these variables at three courses in Austin, Texas: Pease Park, Zilker Park, and Mary Moore Searight Park. Their analysis focused on two areas on each course: off the course path and around the baskets. The different samples allowed them to compare the soil and vegetation conditions in areas with high and low foot traffic.

Measuring soil compaction, erosion and vegetation cover is not new, and Trendafilova and Waller followed standard scientific measurement procedures.

Pease Park description
Soil compaction near a disc golf basket at Pease Park in Austin, Texas, which was closed due to ecological degradation concerns.

Though it may not surprise many disc golfers, Trendafilova and Waller (2011) found that soil compaction, erosion and depletion of vegetation are more severe in areas near baskets compared to areas farther out.

Leung and colleagues (2013) carried out a similar analysis on courses in North Carolina (Valley Springs, Cornwallis, Cedar Hills and Kentwood). Their study revealed, once again, that areas with high foot traffic are more likely to have vegetation loss, bare soil, root exposure and soil compaction than areas with less traffic.

Limitations

The studies reviewed above have two limitations. First, Trendafilova and Waller (2011) looked at courses in Austin, Texas, a hot bed for disc golf in one of the state’s biggest cities. In fact, their study included the most popular course in Texas (Zilker Park), per a recent article in Release Point. Though the researchers sidestepped this issue, their results may only be representative of conditions at courses with high use rates.

Leung and colleagues (2013, 283) addressed this limitation. They noted that “use data were unavailable” for the courses they studied and suggested a way to overcome this limitation with an enhanced sampling procedure in a future study.

Second, while both studies identified vegetation loss and soil compaction as significant environmental problems, neither study clarified how, exactly, these problems affect the ecological surroundings.

People walk on grass all the time, right? Sometimes the grass turns into hard, brown dance floors, which, by the way, are great for skip shots. What’s the big deal?

Anther example soil compaction
Compacted soil is great for skip shots but terrible for prompting water circulation in that all-important upper layer of soil. Photo Ronald Harkey.

Why Care About Dirt?

Soil compaction is probably not the first thing disc golfers think about when they’re staring down a 25-foot putt. Yet, there are at least two reasons to think about soil when you’re inside “the circle.”

The first reason is obvious. Whether soil compaction near baskets is a severe environmental problem or not, if park officials perceive it as one, your favorite course could be closed. As noted above, Pease Park, one of the courses studied by Trendafilova and Waller (2011), was later shut down due to environmental degradation concerns. The Pease Park case is not a unique story. Several courses have been shuttered or were never built because of perceived dangers to the environment.

The second reason is more complicated, but no less important. In the long term, those smooth, brown dance floors around baskets can harm what disc golfers love most about wooded courses: healthy, upright trees. Changes in soil structure, brought on by constant trampling, can hamper the growth and shorten the life of woody plants and trees. It affects the organic material in soil, increases runoff and erosion, and in some cases weakens trees, making them more susceptible to pests and disease.

So, does soil compaction pose a major threat to wooded courses? Maybe, maybe not.

According to Jeff Homburg, a PDGA Hall of Famer with a PhD in soil science, the effects of soil compaction on trees “depends on the context.” Homburg told Parked that compaction is less of a problem in sandy soils than it is in clayey soils.” Other factors include the degree of slope around baskets and the type of tree species in the area. Compaction on disc golf courses is never a good thing, but it does not pose the same level of danger to trees in all situations.

Sloped green with soil compaction
The degree of slope around baskets should be considered when evaluating the problems of soil compaction and erosion. Photo Ronald Harkey.

How to Remedy Compaction

Fixing soil compaction is not easy. Professor Susan Day, a leading expert on below-ground systems of urban forests at the University of British Columbia, told Parked, “In general, a solution is really not just a question of what treatment to apply, but a design/systems problem. So, it probably takes an expert.”

Day has published several articles on the topic, including an excellent review of research on “the effects of soil compaction and amelioration treatments on landscape trees” (read it here). Although some experts have suggested that breaking up compacted soil or aerating it is the best way to go, Day (1994, 15) argued that “as long as drainage is adequate, aeration is most likely not the primary restricting factor resulting from soil compaction.”

Homburg offered a similar view, saying that “simply breaking up the soil, such as in a plowed field, can exacerbate the problem in the long run.”

In short, if severe soil compaction seems to be harming trees and plants on your course, it may be time to bring in an expert to check it out.

The Best Solution is Prevention

None of the scientists I consulted advocated for eliminating the sport altogether. Homburg and Day, as well as the two articles reviewed above, suggested that prevention is the key. After all, the traditional golf industry has been successfully managing this issue for decades.

Effective preventive measures include:

  • Apply six inches of wood-chip mulch in areas with soil compaction. (See Lance’s comment below, which suggests putting down gravel prior to mulching around baskets).
  • Minimize the impact of foot traffic and trampling by installing concrete tees and defining pathways down the fairway as well as between holes.
  • Rotate basket placements every few months.
  • Stay off exposed root zones when the soil is very wet.
  • If you see a tree declining quickly, consider if any of its roots have been severed. “That’s a more common cause of visible decline of previously healthy trees than compaction,” Day noted.
  • Supply information to disc golfers about the impact of the sport on the environment.

Ultimately, the sustainability of the sport rests largely on disc golfers themselves. If you have recommendations for handling any of the problems discussed in this article, please comment below.

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Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

References

Day, Susan, and Nina Bassuk. 1994. A Review of the Effects of Soil Compaction and Amelioration Techniques on Landscape Trees. Journal of Arboriculture, 20(1): 9-17.

Leung, Yu-Fai, Walden-Schreiner, Chelsey, Matisoff, Craig, Naber, Michael, and Jessica Robinson. 2013. A Two-Pronged Approach to Evaluating Environmental Concerns of Disc Golf as Emerging Recreation in Urban Natural Areas. Managing Leisure, 18, 273-285.

Trendafilova, Sylvia, and Steven Waller. 2011. Assessing the Ecological Impact Due to Disc Golf. International Journal of Sport Management, Recreation and Tourism, 8, 35-64.

12 thoughts on “Good Dirt: How Soil Compaction Could Affect the Future of Disc Golf

  1. Excellent information, thank you for addressing this issue. On a related topic, I would love to learn more about disc golf and micro-plastic pollution. Should there be durability standards for plastic?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kudos. This topic needs A LOT more attention. Here’s a paper for a graduate arboriculture class on disc golf, tree health, erosion and compaction, with case studies and strategies to address:

    Like

  3. This the first shot across the bow. Disc golf does not produce revenue, but housing development does. Should we close all hiking trails due soil degredation?

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  4. Disc golf absolutely can produce revenue. At least from desirable courses that attract traveling/visiting disc golfers. A 2017 study we conducted professionally at two of our local courses over the season showed that those courses brought millions to the region; heads in beds, food, etc… The more we can prove this, the more land managers/P&R departments will pony up time, money and resources to install disc golf facilities. Local so-so courses do not attract regular travelers and visitors but may provide valuable recreation to the community and ‘create’ new disc golfers who will travel to other areas to play better courses… People increasingly want to move to areas because of access to outdoor recreation. It is the job of county/city planning commissions to vet new housing development based on jobs, transportation, recreational access, schools, utilities, taxes, environmental impact, etc… It is the job of outdoor recreation enthusiasts/providers to put our projects on their radar when appropriate. Also, with hiking trails, it is reasonable to ask hikers to ‘stay on trail’ as long as the trail is well designed and well drained. Trail treads should be compacted, but the natural land to either side should be trampled minimally… Disc golf is more complex… We can build connector trails between holes that keep golfers on trail. And we can often build fairway trails that keep golfers from trampling too widely. But, disc spray will inevitably produce wider trampling in certain fairway zones (which can be predicted). Rotating pin positions and adding armored, well-drained trail sections after ‘desire lines’ are observed through play are tools to mitigate erosion and compaction. In disc golf ‘keep to trails’ is more appropriate than ‘stay on trails’…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The issue around baskets and other high traffic areas has been a controversial one for our club in Columbia, Missouri. We have a couple of courses that receive a ton of traffic. This has led to a few of the “greens” being trampled to the point of not being able to grow grass, which leads to ankle deep mud typically in early spring. Of course this is also the time of year when everyone who didn’t play through the winter wants to come out, compounding the problem. Our solution was 2” gravel base in those sloppy areas followed by mulch which was applied later, after the gravel had been walked in. The end result is a somewhat permanent fix that is now a beautifully mulched green. Mulching alone will not solve the issue, at least in our case, without a stable base mulch is just silver saddle on a jackass. Be prepared for a whole lot of whining as the gravel gets walked in, golfers love to complain and their precious discs could be damaged while the gravel is exposed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Lance. Sounds like a solid fix. I’m sure, in the end, the whiners were happy to not be playing in mud pits. Winter is the season of mud in my region.

      Like

    2. Lance, we just installed a disc golf park and put compacted gravel rings underneath each pin position. Directly under the baskets is where dirt gets pushed away most and the concrete footings exposed, so that water drains towards the footing and also makes a muddy mess. Around the gravel rings we often laid thick tree mulch donated by the tree companies or natural pine needle duff from underneath dead trees on site… Like you say, makes a beautiful ‘green’!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article!

    It’s good that people are starting to recognize some of the issues associated with the game of disc golf.

    In particular… how courses are designed, constructed and maintained.

    Players want better and better courses and to reach the mainstream general population… it’s a must.

    The problem is that – the design, construction and maintenance of a disc golf course is far more complicated than perceived and this article highlights just one of the many issues.

    But, as an industry, we must first get over the idea that we can design, construct and maintain better courses with a “free to play” structure.

    You’re going to need an on-going cash flow, (from those that play), to cover expenses.

    From the beginning – to this day – everyone has been programmed and conditioned to sell disc golf as a low-budget, free activity and that is what many Parks and, even, some players still believe.

    It was a good way to get the sport going at first but, in reality, it’s not a good business model.

    At the end of the day… “disc” golf is very similar to “ball” golf… in that, it’s the kind of, (land use), game that requires a “fee to play” for the provision of quality courses that are well designed, constructed and maintained.

    It should be the same as building and maintaining a quality GOLF course but, on a much smaller parcel of land.

    Low-budget, poor quality and free… doesn’t work well… if you really want to provide better courses and attract a much larger market.

    You can’t expect the general public to play a low-budget, poorly maintained, un-supervised course.

    It wouldn’t work for GOLF and… it doesn’t work for “DISC” GOLF!

    IngleDesigns.com

    – Best viewed and with much more information – on a desktop, laptop or tablet.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s really almost wholly immaterial for a number of reasons (not that I’m suggesting that we shouldn’t do our best to protect what we have in place).

    A great many courses were created in places that were rife with crime or otherwise poorly kept. Many were on the chopping block to be razed and developed into housing complexes.

    Those things would have destroyed nearly 100% of all the vegetation and soil (and Jarva being turned into a cemetery is an example of a use of land that will be far worse for the surrounding areas).

    Any comparisons on any level to ball golf courses is utterly ludicrous. While they are said to be well cared for, they require 10 times the mowing, infinity time as much chemicals (disc golf courses are ecologically friendly and use none), and a far greater amount of man hours and other supplies to maintain (like seed, importing sand, and the fact that all the carbon output is on tracts that are a minimum of 3 times greater than the area needed for disc golf).

    Ball golf is an ecological disaster with enormous and horrifying impact on the environment.

    Disc golf–as was in the very first PDGA Mission Statement Document–is dedicated to saving land that would otherwise be destroyed and to make as little environmental impact as possible in building and maintaining courses (which included specific notes on cutting down as few trees as possible, while ball golf courses require wholesale terraforming at enormous ecological impact).

    The tiny losses of soil and vegetation on a disc golf course are meaningless in light of the fact that they have saved so much land that would now be concrete and steel. Even compaction is not an issue, because most of the compacted land is already in wooded areas that get no sun and where grass does not grow anyway. While roots get exposed, I’ve rarely seen a tree lost on the 2 courses I’ve played for over 25 years.

    Soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and football fields, along with the aforementioned ball golf courses, all have dramatically worse environmental records than disc golf (every one of those does a minimum of 10 times the damage per acre, while ball golf does 1000s of times the damage per acre to the environment than disc golf).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting argument Ron. You mentioned the first PDGA mission statement. Do you happen to have a copy or link to it? You wrote, “Disc golf–as was in the very first PDGA Mission Statement Document–is dedicated to saving land that would otherwise be destroyed.” I think dg does save land in some cases. Getting a new course installed on public land sometimes involves changing the land use laws in a way that preserves green space and forests. There’s surely some overlap in the ideological and material interests of environmentalists and disc golfers.

      Like

  8. Most of you will not like this …
    Dogs significantly increase soil compaction because their small pointed paws produce more pounds per square inch of pressure on the soil.
    The reality is that the best way for players to avoid soil compaction is to stay home, but that is not going to happen! Therefore the burden of reducing soil compaction almost entirely rests on the shoulders of the course designers.

    -B.A. in Forest Management from NCSU

    Liked by 2 people

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