American Society of Landscape Architects
ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications

<< back to main page



Fool's Gold: Audubon International Certification as a Predictor of Foraging Habitat Suitability for Wading Birds, a case study
Robert G. Collins, Sudent, ASLA

Mississippi State University
Advisors: Susan J. Mulley

Narrative Summary:

The future ability of the Southwest Florida environment to sustain healthy wading bird populations is in doubt. Already, these birds, which are seen as “bioindicators of the health of wetland ecosystems in Florida” (Smith, Richardson, & Collopy 1995 p. 247) have collectively reduced their nesting attempts by 90% since the 1940’s (Frederick and Spalding 1994). Habitat loss and alterations to the natural hydrological patterns in the Everglades have been cited as reasons for their precipitous decline (Bancroft, Strong, Sawicki 1994, Hoffman & Jewell 1994, Powell, Bjork, Odgen, Paul, Powell, & Robertson 1989). The astonishing pace at which land is being developed, and the resulting destruction of habitat, shows no signs of slowing. Regarding the future of development in the region, Al Hoffman, Jr., the founder and Chairman of the Board of WCI Communities, Inc., remarked, “There’s no power on earth that can stop it...It’s an inevitable tidal wave!” (Grunwald 2002). Census figures show that he may be correct since the population of Collier County grew by 65% during the decade of the 1990’s (Audubon International 2003b).

As habitat for wading birds is lost or degraded, non-traditional foraging sites, such as golf courses, will become increasingly important for this suite of species. All golf courses in Southwest Florida use constructed lakes for a variety of purposes, both aesthetic and functional, with many being used as foraging sites for wading birds. Currently, Audubon International, a not-for-profit environmental organization, which is dedicated “ improve(ing) the quality of life and the environment through research, education, and conservation assistance,” (Audubon International 2004a, no page) certifies golf courses that have a commitment to environmental quality, which includes “identify(ing) habitat enhancement / restoration projects” (Audubon International 2003e, no page). As with approximately 500 other Audubon societies in the United States, Audubon International is not affiliated with the National Audubon Society. With the help of the United States Golf Association, Ron Dodson helped establish the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses in 1991 (Dodson 1992).

To attain status in the Gold Signature Sanctuary Program, which represents their highest level of environmental stewardship, Audubon International will prepare an Environmental Master Plan in addition to being involved with the project prior to the “final sighting and design of the project” (Audubon International 2003e). The Environmental Master Plan includes an ecological design for the golf club, a natural resource management plan, and a community education and information plan (Audubon International 2004b). Also, a member of the Audubon International staff will visit the site twenty times. The fees associated with the Gold Level certification include a $100,000 technical service fee, a $9,000 program fee, and an annual membership fee of $500.

For this study, the suitability of wading bird foraging habitat on three Audubon International Certified Gold golf courses was compared to that on three non-Audubon courses in the Fort Myers / Bonita Springs / Naples area of Florida. It was assumed for this study that “habitat enhancement / restoration projects” (Audubon International 2003e, no page) on the Audubon International golf courses would include wading bird foraging habitat since wading birds are “bioindicators of the health of wetland ecosystems in Florida” (Smith, Richardson, & Collopy 1995 p. 247). Presumably, the amount of suitable wading bird foraging habitat on the Certified Gold courses would be greater than that found on typical Florida golf courses. In order to evaluate this premise, I randomly selected three non-Audubon courses. These courses were then compared to the three Certified Gold Audubon International golf courses on a series of eight (8) indicators that influence the suitability of wading bird foraging habitat. The resulting data allows me to determine if Audubon International certification results in improved foraging habitat for wading birds beyond what is found on typical Florida golf courses. Results of the study are examined within the larger context of sustainable development and natural capital.

An evaluation matrix was developed in order to analyze eight (8) indicators that influence the suitability of wading bird foraging habitat, and courses were ranked separately for each indicator. The Wetland Assessment Technique for Environmental Review provides a precedent for using an evaluation matrix as a tool to assess environmental quality (Florida Power and Light 2001). Anderson and Gutzwiller (1996) recommend that habitat features at both the micro and macro scale be analyzed. Accordingly, site-specific factors, management issues, and the overall landscape scale are all represented in the matrix. With the exception of the analysis of negative adjacent land uses and golf course proximity to natural preserve areas, no indicators were chosen that are outside the realm of influence of the design, construction, or management of the golf course. Each indicator of habitat suitability was given a set of parameters based on the literature that were tested in the field or collected through interviews with golf course managers and superintendents. Values were assigned to each of these parameters through the data collection process in order to draw comparisons between each course for the series of indicators. The following is the list of general indicators of habitat suitability that were tested: water depth, water type, vegetation (riparian buffer and aquatic), size of individual wetlands and total wetland area on each golf course, buffer zones, bottom surface composition, pesticide and herbicide usage, and landscape context.

Overall Comparison of Audubon International Certified vs. Non-Audubon Golf Courses
Mean rank was calculated by averaging the rank from 1 to 6, with 1 representing the best potential suitability and 6 the worst, of the Audubon and the non-Audubon golf courses. The mean rank, mean, and standard deviation were calculated and reported for the following metrics, which were sub-categorized according to quantitative and qualitative measurements:

Quantitative Measurements
Total available foraging area at the 6 inch contour (acres), Total wetland acreage, Total ephemeral wetland acreage, and Percentage of available wetland at the 6 inch contour

Qualitative Measurements
Total percentage of wetland bordered by aquatic vegetation, Average width of aquatic vegetation, Vegetation mass (square feet), Total percentage of vegetative cover, Wetlands with tall and dense vegetation, Pounds of nitrogen applied per 1000 square feet, Total acreage of manicured turf, Total acreage of environmentally sensitive preserve areas, Average width of riparian buffer, and Percentage of turf buffered

Results of this study, which are examined within the context of sustainable development and natural capital, include the following four critical metrics: total available foraging area at the 6 inch contour, percentage of available wetland at the 6 inch contour, vegetation mass, and total percentage of vegetative cover. These metrics were determined based on the existing literature, which consistently notes that water depth followed by vegetation structure and composition have the greatest degree of influence on the ability of wading birds to successfully feed.

Total Available Foraging Area at the 6 inch Contour (acres)
A total of 1,353 depth measurements were taken on six golf courses, and a contour model was built for each wetland to a maximum depth of 36 inches based on their relevant measurements. For the purposes of this study, total available foraging area is reported at the 6 inch contour since ten (10) out of the fourteen (14) birds in the assemblage can successfully feed at this depth. The importance of water depth is emphasized by the fact that only 6 of these birds can successfully feed in water eight inches deep. The Audubon International Certified Gold golf courses ranked first, third, and fifth overall in this category while the non-Audubon courses ranked second, fourth and sixth.

Percentage of Available Foraging Area at the 6 inch contour
Percentage of available wetland is a more accurate indicator of relative habitat suitability than the statistics for total available foraging area since the total acreage category is skewed to the courses with the most water. Percentage of available foraging area was calculated by dividing the total wetland area at the 6 inch depth by the total wetland area on each golf course. Again, the Audubon International Certified Gold golf courses rank first, third and fifth overall.

Vegetation Mass (square feet)
Vegetation mass was calculated by multiplying the total linear feet of wetland bordered by aquatic vegetation by the average width of aquatic vegetation for each golf course. The Audubon International Certified Gold golf courses rank second, third, and fifth overall in this category while the non-Audubon golf courses rank first, fourth, and sixth.

Total Percentage of Vegetative Cover
Total percentage of vegetative cover was calculated by dividing vegetation mass by total wetland acreage on each golf course. The Audubon International Certified Gold golf courses rank first, third, and fifth overall in this category while the non-Audubon golf courses rank second, fourth, and sixth.

The results of this study suggest that in relation to the non-Audubon courses, Audubon International is generally more successful in meeting the secondary habitat requirements for foraging wading birds, but their Gold Certification does not always guarantee improved suitability for the site-specific indicators that actually determine the viability of the potential foraging area.

Watson (1998) found that golf courses enrolled in the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuaries Program can charge 34% more in greens fees than non-Audubon courses based on people’s willingness to pay (WTP) for “environmentally certified goods” (Watson 1998 cited in Singleton 2001 p. 3). In their promotional literature, Audubon International (2003b) acknowledges the economic benefit to developers and golf courses that their certification provides. They write, “The designation (Gold Certification) is useful in permitting, marketing and sales efforts, or other appropriate activities” (Audubon International 2003e, no page). Through their promotion of environmentally sound and sustainable development, Audubon International and their business partners, therefore, are realizing the benefits of manmade capital, which is produced from natural capital (Franceschi and Kahn 2003).

Audubon International’s close ties to the United States Golf Association, however, raise important questions about their objectivity. The results of this study suggest that for Audubon International, and some golf developments, there is greater value in the perception of the existence of habitat than actually creating quality habitat. Pelican Preserve, in particular, presents a façade of habitat suitability. It is clear that the Audubon International certification process in no way guarantees equity among their member courses in terms of habitat suitability. Rather, the various levels (Gold, Silver, and Bronze), along with Audubon International’s duration of involvement with a specific project, reflect the degree of financial commitment from the developer or owner, not a set standard that Audubon International uses as a guide to award worthy golf courses or developments. This results in a distinct inequity for some members of the Audubon Signature Program where the same level of habitat suitability on one Certified Gold course is drastically better, or much worse, than another Certified Gold course. Raptor Bay, for example, is far superior to both Old Collier and Pelican Preserve in terms of the actual provision of wading bird foraging habitat.

Despite the “annual recertification visits”, it is very unlikely that Pelican Preserve would ever be removed from Audubon International’s roll of Certified Gold Signature Sanctuaries, especially considering Audubon International’s recent partnership, valued at $2.5 million, with WCI Communities, Inc., the developer of the property (Audubon International 2003a). According to Audubon International, their relationship with WCI includes plans for ten additional communities in Florida, all of which were planned to be Certified Gold at the time of publication of this document (Audubon International 2003d). Explaining WCI’s commitment to environmental quality, Audubon International notes, “WCI (has) a full-time team of four environmental managers dedicated to building sustainable communities and educating consumers, communities, and industry leaders" (Audubon International 2003a). Mirroring this statement in the wake of Audubon International’s partnership with WCI, Ron Dodson, President and CEO of Audubon International, explains “WCI is clearly leading the way for individuals and builders to drive change and help protect our natural resources. One industry at a time” (WCI Communities 2003). Al Hoffman, Jr., who is the founder and Chairman of the Board of WCI Communities, Inc. as well as the former ‘National Co-Chair and the Florida State Finance Chairman for the George W. Bush for President Campaign’, has a slightly less committed view on protecting Florida’s natural resources (WCI Communities 2003). Protesting regulations designed to save Florida panther habitat, Hoffman said, “What is the cost of protecting this bastardized species? How much land is society going to sacrifice?” (Grunwald 2002, no page). Further evidence of Hoffman’s [lack of] commitment to the environment is exemplified in the following statement that he made in 2002: “We need to protect the environment for our own selfish motives...If we destroy the environment, it won’t serve us anymore...(regulators)...think the world will end if they can’t protect that little tree” (Grunwald 2002, no page).

Obviously, statements like those of Al Hoffman, Jr. will not be published in any of the promotional literature for Audubon International or WCI since the perception of eco-friendly design is in the best economic interests of both organizations. In fact, public support for the ‘inevitable tidal wave’ of development might erode without the perception of conservation within the context of these developments. It is also ironic that WCI Communities professes a commitment to sustainability considering Hoffman’s leadership of the controversial Florida Council of 100, a business group that advocated a proposal based on a previous plan devised by Azurix, an Enron subsidiary, that sought to “...take over part of the Everglades restoration in exchange for state permits to buy and sell water” (Hollander 2005, p. 20). Their revised plan attempted to facilitate “movement of water around the state” by “undermining the geographic logic of the water management districts” that would ultimately limit the ability of these districts to preserve natural hydrological patterns and promote water conservation (Hollander 2005, p. 20). Clearly, this plan was an attempt not to promote sustainability or natural resource protection, but one that would fuel more development and ensure improved cash flow for the business interests represented on the Florida Council of 100. Previous research (Bancroft et al. 1994) has shown that this plan, if implemented, would undoubtedly have had a serious negative impact on wading bird populations in this region. In a bizarre legal motion, Hollander (2005) writes that the Association of Florida Community Developers, of which WCI Communities is a member, challenged the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s findings “regarding the amount of water that should be reserved for Everglades and other wetland restoration in Florida” based on the argument that the Everglades are part of “natural systems that no longer exist” (Caputo 2004 cited in Hollander 2005, p. 21). Hollander continues, “The thrust of water politics is not behind restoring the Everglades ecosystem but rather it is about storing water for purposes of development and ultimately, about privatizing at least some of the state’s water resources. Moreover, it is also about cementing political economic ties that will further political ambitions at the national scale” (Hollander 2005, p. 24). Al Hoffman’s willingness to undermine science in favor of unchecked development, along with his close ties with the Bush family, indicates that money and political power are more important to him than genuinely sustainable development. Audubon International, because of their partnership with WCI Communities, is complicit in the pursuit of an agenda that is antithetical to the fundamentals of sustainable development, which they claim to promote. In their Principles For Sustainable Resource Management, Audubon International writes, “Sustainable development and sustainable resource management means using natural resources in ways beneficial to human beings, now and into the future, and at the same time not depleting those resources nor adversely impacting biological diversity” (Audubon International 1998). If Al Hoffman, WCI Communities, and the Florida Council of 100 were to realize their goal of “...allowing private interests to sell water without regulatory interference” (Hollander 2005, p. 20) the precise result would be the depletion of natural resources along with negative impacts to biological diversity.

Although Audubon International is classified as a not-for-profit environmental organization, it is clear from their history that they were created to advance, at least in part, the interests of the golf development industry. The results of this study support the conclusion that Audubon International’s primary interest is in promoting development. Whether or not the future developments that they certify meet the standards set forth in their literature, or the perception of what those standards mean, is of secondary importance. Furthermore, research by White (2003) shows that improved foraging habitat for wading birds is not positively correlated with Audubon International certification. While only two (2) of the twelve (12) courses in the White (2003) study set were Audubon International Certified Signature Sanctuaries, it is worth noting that they ranked last and second to last in the “probability of observing an open water wader” category (White 2003, p. 83).

The language of sustainability is embedded in many of Audubon International’s publications, and they certainly recognize that there is both a value, and significant public interest in preserving natural capital so that future generations will not have diminished environmental resources as a result of the actions of the current generation (Franceschi and Kahn 2003). The results of this study indicate that Audubon International’s rhetoric is decoupled from genuine sustainability in their developments as they relate to wading bird populations. In fact, evidence collected by Gawlik and Sklar (2000) suggests that, in relation to Raptor Bay, birds that choose to forage at Pelican Preserve and Old Collier would incur increased energetic costs, which could have a serious negative impact on their population numbers because of the decreased amount of available foraging area, as determined by water depth. In their study of ecological traps, Kokko and Sutherland write, “...when managing habitats, it is necessary to consider not just the actual habitat quality, but also the perceived quality. Creating high-quality habitat without the right cues will be of little use, while allowing poor-quality habitat to appear very suitable might be damaging to the entire population” (Kokko and Southerland 2001, p. 548). This concern is especially relevant for golf course wetlands since it can be assumed that these highly managed landscapes will have decreased water quality, relative to pristine wetlands, as well as the potential to expose birds to highly toxic insecticides and herbicides. Results of this study indicate that Pelican Preserve wetlands, in general, are largely unsuitable for foraging purposes, but cues such as vegetation structure and abundance may suggest otherwise to wading birds searching for foraging sites.

Pearce noted, “...modern environmentalism has failed to address the underlying causes of environmental degradation, which lie in the economic sphere. Simply stated, conservation appears not to pay when compared with the economic returns that society gets from converting natural assets into (explicitly) commercial ones” (Pearce 1998, p. 23). The golf industry, through Audubon International, has opportunistically capitalized on this concern. The realization that golf courses historically have a bad reputation environmentally and that conservation could be achieved in the context of the golf environment prompted the formation of Audubon International. However, it is important that conservation efforts on golf courses and in developments strive to move beyond a façade of habitat suitability. The danger, of course, emerges that approval for future developments may potentially be at least partially contingent on the agreement to create and restore wildlife habitat. If the habitat created is of little value in relation to the habitat that existed on-site prior to disturbance, the target population of the manufactured habitat could be in grave danger.

Several recent studies have shown that golf courses do present unique conservation opportunities (Moul & Elliott 1993, Key 2003, Gordon, Jones, & Philips 2004). This study observed suitable habitat, especially at Raptor Bay. However, an ethical conflict arises when it is obvious that some Audubon International courses are promoted as furthering sustainability and wildlife conservation, which includes “identify(ing) habitat enhancement/restoration projects” (Audubon International 2003e) when the evidence shows that, in fact, very little viable wading bird foraging habitat actually exists on two of the three Certified Gold golf courses in question. By couching their developments in the language of sustainability and conservation, Audubon International has attempted to reverse the trend observed by Pearce (1998) so that golf courses become part of the conservation movement, thereby allowing economic development and wildlife conservation to co-exist regardless of the reality of habitat provision.

Perhaps Audubon International subscribes to the concept of “weak sustainability” as described by Franceschi and Kahn (2003). More likely, a series of interrelated, complex factors work to limit Audubon International’s ability to guarantee the presence of large amount of suitable habitat on their Certified Gold golf courses. These might include, but are not limited to: the developer’s program goals, construction realities, management practices, a conservation focus on other species of wildlife, the relative conservation potential of each individual site, and the rigidity of Audubon International’s own ranking system. Regardless of the reasons for their shortcomings, the integrity of Audubon International’s Signature Sanctuary Program is in question because they have failed to significantly contribute, despite their assertion to the contrary, to the sustainability of wading bird populations - an important segment of Florida’s natural capital.

Further potential research on this topic should include point count data. A comparison of bird response to Audubon vs. non-Audubon courses would be a worthwhile investigation. Also interesting would be a further analysis of the energetic cost to wading birds that choose golf course wetlands for foraging sites when very little potential foraging area actually exists on the course. It is possible that some golf course wetlands act as an ecological trap to foraging wading birds, and increased awareness of this potential hazard would be very beneficial. Another interesting future study would be to assess the public’s reaction to the name ‘Audubon’ and what qualities are associated with this name. I think further analysis of Audubon International’s use of the name, especially in an ethical context, is warranted considering the results of this study.

This study analyzed a series of indicators at the micro and macro scale that influence the suitability of wading bird foraging habitat. The primary importance of this study is in providing awareness of the disconnect between image and reality for Audubon International certification of golf courses. While their certification process was found to be lacking in terms of the narrow focus of wading bird foraging habitat, the results of this study demonstrate that further research into wildlife habitat provided by Audubon International programs is warranted. While the sustainable development movement continues to grow in popularity, its variant offspring should be critically analyzed in order to help avoid a future of decreased returns from natural capital. Furthermore, landscape architecture practitioners can help ensure an authentically sustainable future by refusing to be satisfied with the mere image of sustainability since future generations will likely require a built environment that does not sacrifice the earth’s natural resources, which include wildlife populations.


ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications