Westward, ho!: Introducing 2022’s ELGA winners

This year’s winners of all four Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards hail from California and beyond.


Saplings planted where coconut palm trees used to be before the invasive coconut rhinoceros beetle devastated them at Palm Tree Golf Course in Guam. Photos by Russell Young

When it comes to the 2022 winners of the Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards presented annually by GCSAA and Golf Digest in partnership with Syngenta, west is best.

Three of the four ELGA winners ply their environmentally conscientious trades in California, while the fourth works even farther west than that — all the way to the western-most point of the United States, the U.S. territory of Guam.

On the following pages, the winners — from left, above, Russell Young, CGCS; Wayne Mills; Justin Brimley; and Scott Bower — share some of what they did to rise to the top of the sustainability heap.

The ELGA recipients will be honored during the 2023 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show, Feb. 6-9 on the other side of the country — Orlando.

Innovative Conservation Award

Russell F. Young

Russell F. Young, CGCS

Palm Tree Golf Course

The name — Palm Tree Golf Course — should provide the first indication of just how important those signature palms are to the place. Now imagine idyllic Pacific islands like Guam without them.

The native Chamorro — the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands which encompass the U.S. territory of Guam — relied on coconut palms for food, drink, oil, thatch and animal feed, but the trees are under siege by the voracious invasive coconut rhinoceros beetle.

“It’s a huge problem on Guam,” says Russell Young, CGCS, superintendent at Palm Tree GC on the Andersen Air Force Base and a 26-year GCSAA member. “Not only is it the coconut palm. It’s running out of coconut trees and going after other palm trees — every kind of palm tree on the island.”

While it might be only a matter of time before the CRB munches through the last palm on Guam, Young invented a way to at least slow its march. Inspired by the way some locals had taken to protecting palms on their property by weaving tekken netting — the gill nets locals use for fishing — through the trees’ crowns. The netting prevented the beetles from having easy access to the crown, which is where they enter before chewing their way through the trees’ interiors.

beetle traps
One of the traps — tekken netting draped over felled palm logs — with more than a dozen of the voracious beetles ensnared. An estimated 6,000 beetles have been trapped over the six years of trapping at the course on the Andersen Air Force Base.

Faced with dead coconut palms and prohibited from disposing of them at the base’s dump, Young tried cutting the logs into pieces and stacking them up “like Lincoln Logs,” Young says, then covering the piles with the tekken netting. The CRB larvae happily munching on the decaying logs eventually emerge as adults but can’t escape from the netting.

“The traps serve two purposes,” Young says. “It allows us to cut the tree down. It basically first works as a great trap, since the coconut rhinoceros beetle is attracted to the coconut tree for egg-laying purposes. The larvae live inside and eat everything.

“After about a year or year and a half, the tree is no longer attractive. It’s all eaten or it rots just from regular microbial activity and other insects. Once it rots, we compost it ourselves in a compost site and eventually use that compost around other plants.”

The traps — tracked and monitored by a team from Colorado State University — have ensnared an estimated 6,000 CRB over six years and slowed their spread. However, the course has lost around 300 coconut palms and has “maybe 75” left. Young says an estimate to remove the dead trees came in at $1,200 apiece. Instead, he has found a way to put a dent in the CRB population and use the coconut palms “from cradle to grave.”

Young and his staff have been working with the University of Guam (which, like CSU, has implemented similar CRB traps) to plant different species of ironwood trees on the course to replace the fallen palms.

“We’re the Palm Tree Golf Course,” Young says. “They might have to rename it the Ironwood Tree Golf Course. If you see what it looked like 20 years ago and what the course is like today, the difference is dramatic. Hole No. 8 used to be tree-lined with palm trees. Now it’s all little seedlings — ironwood trees.”

First runner-up for the Innovative Conservation Award was Jim Pavonetti, CGCS, golf and grounds superintendent at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., and a 27-year GCSAA member. Second runner-up was Reid Solodan, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Canmore (Alberta) Golf and Curling Club and a 28-year association member.

Natural Resource Conservation Award

Russell F. Young

Wayne Mills

La Cumbre Country Club

Santa Barbara, Calif.

For the two-plus decades Wayne Mills has spent as superintendent at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, Calif., he has done everything he could to reduce the amount of water used on the 18-hole private course that opened in 1908.

Mills, LCCC’s GCSAA Class A superintendent and a 38-year association member, and his staff converted acres of previously irrigated turf to naturalized areas. They removed 4,500 square feet of concrete cart paths to reduce the impervious surface area on property and allow more stormwater to infiltrate the ground. They follow a stringent regimen for maintaining the LCCC irrigation system to reduce leaks and improve efficiency.

But having much impact on the other side of the water-use equation remained largely out of reach, though a plentiful, affordable, environmentally conscientious water source lay literally a stone’s throw away.

That changed earlier this year, though, when Mills’ yearslong effort to secure recycled water from the City of Santa Barbara finally turned in his favor.

Native area at LaCumbre CC
Native areas and bird boxes are among the many environmentally friendly fixtures at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara, Calif. Photos courtesy of Wayne Mills

“We’re the no-rain epicenter,” Mills says of La Cumbre CC’s location in parched Southern California. “We’re kind of the canary in a coal mine here for the state.”

Years ago, Mills realized the importance of buying recycled water from Santa Barbara. Trouble was, the city wouldn’t sell. The issue: LCCC straddles three distinct governance zones — the city of Santa Barbara, the county of Santa Barbara, and the Hope Ranch Annex. Half of the course’s potable (drinkable) water comes from one provider, half from another. Because the course isn’t completely within city boundaries, the city was in no hurry to provide recycled water.

Mills says he first approached the city in 2009, then again in 2016 when that year’s drought became more dire.

Finally, in 2020, LCCC agreed to fund the $1.1 million pipeline that would carry the recycled water to the property. LCCC and the city signed a 25-year contract — the result of negotiations and coordination with more than a half dozen water and health agencies — that guaranteed the course could buy at least 40 acre-feet of recycled water per year.

The spigot turned on March 1. Mills says he expects 115 of the 160 acre-feet used to irrigate the course this year will be recycled.

“This is all about the viability of the club,” Mills says. “Without this water … the way things are, they wanted another 30% reduction of water use on top of what we’ve already done.”

Water spigot
Getting recycled water (and the signature purple pipe through which it is delivered) to LCCC was a big win for the club and required years of back-and-forth between the club and myriad government agencies.

Not only is the recycled water cheaper — roughly 30% cheaper than the potable water Mills buys — it reduces demand on potable supplies and provides several environmental benefits, from energy reduction to decrease in pollutants entering waterways.

“This was a wonderful accomplishment,” Mills says. “I’m proud of all the things we’ve done here in terms of having a more natural site. We’ve created a wildlife corridor. Wildlife moves through here, showing up at different times of the year — foxes having kits, quail coming through, owl boxes. It’s just fun, and the members like it. They get to play golf on a great surface, but they’re also getting a little bit of a walk in nature. I think that was the intention of golf. It’s taking a good experience and making it better.”

First runner-up for the Natural Resource Conservation Award was Landon Lindsay, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club in Irving, Texas, and an 11-year association member. Second runner-up was Ryan Cummings, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind., and 18-year GCSAA member.

Healthy Land Stewardship Award

Russell F. Young

Justin C. Brimley

Crystal Springs Golf Course

Burlingame, Calif.

When he was an assistant superintendent at Crystal Springs GC, Justin Brimley spent considerable time tending to roughly 7 acres of native areas that, as he recalled, were in dire need of restoration.

He aerified those swaths between two abutting par 5s, between tees and behind greens and reseeded with a mix of native California plants. Then he left for another job.

When he returned as Crystal Springs GC’s Class A superintendent in 2019, those native areas, he says, “were back to square one.”

“They let people traffic through them — golf carts, walkers,” says Brimley, an 11-year GCSAA member. “The hardest part was just keeping the human element out. They had been allowed to go wherever they wanted to go.”

This time around, Brimley designated the locations as environmentally sensitive areas, roped them off and staked them. That and the monitoring that went along with it proved time-consuming, but when spring 2021 rolled around, it was worth it, Brimley says.

Crystal Springs hole no. 8
Crystal Springs Golf Course’s No. 8 hole with some local critters dining in a naturalized area. Photos by Justin Brimley

“They looked fantastic,” he recalls. “Managing the ropes and the stakes just became part of the routine. People would see the stakes and try to remove them. I made signs. I informed the pro shop what we were doing and why. Initially, we got a lot of pushback: ‘Why can’t we drive through there?’ In the beginning, it was a lot of headache. But the return on investment is huge. I get comments about it all the time. Instead of having all these trampled areas, it’s native and beautiful.

“To me, that’s what really makes this golf course look good. These areas, through June, July, into August, really make the course look gorgeous.”

Brimley stresses, though, the work wasn’t done just for the aesthetics. It increased the course’s native habitat and wildlife corridors to approximately 15-20 acres. And the critters, he says, have responded.

“It’s all native habitat for deer and the field mice that feed our raptors, all that wildlife we want to protect,” Brimley says. “Since I’ve been here, our wildlife populations have improved, and they were already large to begin with. I’ve got herds of deer, flocks of turkey, raptors. I’ve got bald eagles on-site. It’s pretty amazing. It’s a special place.”

The native areas are just a small part of the course’s commitment to the environment. Located about 15 miles south of San Francisco, Crystal Springs GC sits above a watershed that provides the Bay Area with its water, so Brimley and his team adhere to stringent best management practices and an integrated pest management plan to limit inputs. They take the least toxic approach and no longer have any restricted materials in the chemical room. They also take a minimalistic approach to use of nitrates and phosphorous.

Crystal Springs hole no. 8 aerification process
Part of the same area in 2020, just after aerification and roping and staking to prevent golfers from entering. Restricting traffic allow the areas to look “fantastic” when they grew out.

“Since we’re on a watershed, we’re never using anything that’s going to leach,” Brimley says. “We don’t do preventative applications. It’s all curative. Some of that is managing the turf to where it’s healthy to begin with so you’re not using all those chemicals. Anything in the habitat is eating our turf. That’s what they’re digesting. Keeping the critters in mind is something we do all the time.”

First runner-up for the Healthy Land Stewardship Award was Don Naumann, GCSAA Class A superintendent at Blackberry Farm Golf Course in Cupertino, Calif., and a 40-year association member. Second runner-up was H. Mitchell Wilkerson, CGCS, director of golf course management at Moss Creek Owner’s Association in Hilton Head Island, S.C., and a 38-year GCSAA member.

Communications and Outreach Award

Russell F. Young

Scott R. Bower

Martis Camp Club

Truckee, Calif.

Being a conscientious environmental steward is baked into the role of golf course superintendent. Telling others about that stewardship, however, is not.

Scott Bower thinks maybe it should be.

“What would I say to people who say they’re too busy to communicate about what they’re doing? I’d say they’re not too busy,” says Bower, director of grounds at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., and a 31-year GCSAA member. “It’s no different than me saying I’m too busy to work out and take care of myself. That’s an excuse. That’s a choice I’m making. You have to make the time. No one is asking me or all these other managers to write blogs and create podcasts. But can’t we send out one more blurb in a newsletter? Can’t we shake that guy’s hand at the city meeting? It’s not a lot. We’re just asking for a little bit of help here. If everyone did a little bit, it’s amazing what could happen.”

When it comes to environmental initiatives — and communications surrounding them — Bower and his staff at the 2,177-acre Martis Camp property that encloses the private 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed golf course do more than a little bit.

Forest fire mitigation
Forest fire mitigation is always top-of-mind at Martis Camp Club, which features an 18-hole course on its 2,177-acre property in Truckee, Calif. Photo by Scott Bower

“Our team keeps environmental efforts as our first priority,” Bower says. “We are proud of our land and community, and it is top-of-mind in all decision-making.”

Clear communications surrounding those decisions are both internal and external. Since 2008, Martis Camp Club has had a written communications plan to chronicle land-stewardship initiatives and that allows stakeholders inside and outside the team to track progress. There’s a weekly and a monthly newsletter for the club’s 671 members and staff with a current topic regarding environmental efforts. There’s a Community Day for members to learn about the course, as well as tour of the course that Bower leads, as well as snowshoe hikes — golfing season runs May to October, but the Lake Tahoe property is a four-season destination that also includes a ski resort — trail tours and guest speakers.

Bower and his staff have spoken to just about any local organization, from the local newspaper to fire departments to watershed overseers, that will listen. Their outreach extends to the regional and state level as well. Case in point: Martis Camp Club recently hosted California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, who learned all about the property’s initiatives, especially when it comes to wildfire mitigation, and last month it was to host a regional sustainability and conservation summit that included among its invitees California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Golfers at Martis Camp Club
The club’s golfers have proved to be a receptive audience when it comes to director of grounds Scott Bower discussing all of the club’s environmental initiatives. “People want to hear it,” he says. Photo by Paul Hamill

“I used to be quiet about it,” Bower says. “Now, I really want to get it out there that, our industry, we’re working to be part of the solution. It’s OK to have a voice. The things we’re talking about, they’re not hard. We’re already doing so much of this stuff anyway. And the thing is, people want to hear it. They’re amazed about what we’re doing. When we talk about conservation and environmental protection, they’re fascinated when they find out what we do. I grew up in this world of knowing we’re protecting this outdoor space for people to recreate, but also to be outside and be healthy. And we want it to be here for generations. And the people who really don’t know, it’s up to us to pass that on.”

First runner-up for the Communications and Outreach Award was Matt Gourlay, CGCS, MG, director of golf course management at Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan, Kan., and a 20-year association member. Second runner-up was Gary Early, superintendent at Salmon Run Golf Course in Brookings, Ore., and a three-year GCSAA member.

Andrew Hartsock (ahartsock@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s senior managing editor.