By John Mola, PhD ~
Disc golfers are no strangers to wildlife and many of us identify deeply with the natural environments we play in. We enjoy the view from an elevated tee pad, the impressive stature of mature trees and the sound of buzzing bees. Manufacturers even name discs after mammals, fish, birds, insects and plants.
But folks unfamiliar with disc golf may not see things the same way. Headlines like “Animal rights advocates claim victory in Bay Area disc golf feud” can leave us feeling raw. We’re supposed to be the environmentally-friendly alternative to ball golf. You may protest, “I see hawks and wildflowers on my local course!”
This disconnect between the way we perceive our courses and how others see them can be a bummer, but it also presents a huge opportunity. As the popularity of disc golf grows, we need to show that not only can our courses have low impact on the environment, they can be compatible with broader conservation goals.
One venue where disc golf can have a positive impact is pollinator conservation. Declines of butterflies, bees and other flower-visiting insects are a pressing issue. Crop pollination by wild bees is estimated to have an economic impact of over $1.5 billion in the US alone. Declines in populations have led to the listing of several species, including the once-common Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, as endangered species.
Right now, millions of dollars are being spent and nationwide programs are being established to restore habitat for these species and reverse declines.
Many recreational activities like field sports, ball golf, or games played on pavement simply aren’t compatible with conservation action. However, disc golf may be perfectly positioned for a win-win situation as many of the conditions disc golfers love like mature trees, understories free of overgrown saplings, and managed grasslands are also prime conditions for wildflowers that feed pollinators.
Many disc golf courses already provide elements that can support pollinators unintentionally. However, as we move forward and look to make the sports’ growth compatible with environmental planning, there are several key areas where we can improve pollinator habitat. I outline some thoughts below, but for folks wanting another perspective, you can check out a guide put together by the Xerces Society for ball golf courses.
A Pollinator-Friendly Disc Golf Course from Tee to Green
To get oriented, let’s start from the tee box and work towards the basket. Tee areas offer opportunities for intentional planting of pollinator-friendly shrubs, trees and perennial wildflowers. The removal of invasive shrubs or less frequent mowing of unused areas can also be great low-budget options to improve habitat.
Down the fairway we have to consider high-speed flying discs and foot traffic in our decision-making. That means planting a beautiful bed of Lupine in the middle of the fairway is probably out of the question. But in the rough, we can support wildflower growth through the removal of dense non-native shrubs. This is a win-win as it makes these areas more navigable for finding errant discs but still leaves the area challenging to recover from.
Additional options in the fairway include planting flowering trees and protecting them from discs until they are mature. These can add challenge to the course, be aesthetically pleasing and support pollinators.
As we get to the basket, we’ll have foot traffic and discs landing in the area, but potentially a little bit more room for plantings around the edges and choices for guardian trees. Again, removal of invasives can be key in some areas. In other regions, plantings around pin locations can help retain soils or control flooding, once again providing ecosystem services as well as improved playing conditions.
Lastly, as we walk away from the basket to the next tee pad, we have a substantial opportunity to create flow in course design, improve aesthetics and support wildlife. Pollinator-friendly ground covers can be used, or perennials can line walkways. Of course, these options may not be feasible for every space, but less intensive actions like leaving pollinator-friendly “weedy” plants, mowing at the appropriate time for flowers in different regions, or scatter-seeding wildflowers remain possibilities.
Towards a disc golf environmental ethic
Conserving pollinators on disc golf courses would also offer other opportunities, like getting kids and adult players alike involved in community science through programs like Bumble Bee Watch. If we can demonstrate the value of disc golf to pollinator conservation, there’s even the opportunity to form partnerships between disc golf organizations and conservation outfits like the Xerces Society or government agencies.
As disc golf grows, we’ll continue to face uphill battles in expanding and establishing courses if we don’t consider how to make our sports’ needs compatible with broader land management goals. In this piece, I focused on pollinator conservation, but opportunities for supporting other plant or animal wildlife are also available.
As we move forward as a sport and community, we have to consider our environmental ethic. Disc golf is a sport that can be conservation-oriented if we choose to be. We can choose to build our courses into healthy landscapes, not on top of them. And, thankfully, by doing so we can create spaces that are not only fun and challenging but pleasing to our spirits and supportive of the planet.
Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
John Mola received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California Davis and now works as a Research Ecologist for a federal agency focusing on pollinator conservation. He quit his high school golf team to take up Ultimate and disc golf and never looked back.