Developing and Selling a Tree Management Program to your Club
by Gary Sherman

Many courses designed during the ‘Golden Age’ have experienced a significant proliferation of trees on the course grounds. Some from the maturity of small trees planted at the time the course was built in the 1920’s, some from the planting of trees over the past 70 plus years by greens and beautification committees. Many clubs are now in the process of trying to convince their memberships to cut down a number of these trees in order to restore their courses original design strategies. The question that comes up is ‘How do I sell this to my membership?’

The following steps are put forward as a ‘Best Practice’ to sell a comprehensive tree management plan to the membership of your club. These steps come from the successful experience I had in developing, selling and implementing a tree management plan for my ‘Golden Age’ era golf club.

First step: Sell influential members on the greens and long range planning the idea of conducting a tree management study. Arrange matches with these people in the club and point out opportunities for improvements as you play. Bone up and be knowledgeable on the subject of trees and turf grass and your golf courses’ original design strategies. You don’t need a degree in agronomy. There are numerous resources and books on the subjects that are written for non-professionals. Getting these folks to believe that you appear to know what you are talking about is the most important step it getting the program launched. It is all about your credibility and building confidence with them.

Second step: Conduct a high-level feasibility study.

You should form a team of 2-3 members from the club and your course superintendent. The team should seek the counsel of the following professionals:

A certified arborist: An arborist can help you analyze the current mix of species on the golf course, evaluate their health, recommend a ‘get well’ or elimination plan for ailing trees and help determine the best location for any new trees to be introduced or existing trees to be transplanted. Many club beautification committees plant various ornamental and desirable tree species in areas that they are not suited for. These trees fight to survive in these conditions and often times die after a few years.

A golf course architect: A golf course architect specializing in restoration work can assist with the strategic nature of trees relative to the course design. What trees should be removed due to lines of play; what trees to remove or add for aesthetic purposes, etc. Having old photographs and drawings are very important tools for the architect. The architect can also recommend and add validity to the agronomists and arborist’s recommendations to remove, prune or relocate trees for turf grass improvement (shade, air circulation, sunlight, drainage)

Your local USGA agronomist: Your agronomist can help your superintendent analyze existing turf conditions and recommend improvements that may involve removing or relocating trees and pruning tree root systems. He may recommend tools such as the Arborcom ( computer modeling software to help identify shade problems for turf grass.

The first order of business for the team is to identify the forest type (i.e. is it an Oak-Hickory-Pine or Maple-Beech, etc) and take a tree inventory. Identify types of trees and their environments. There may be several microenvironments (wetland areas, dry exposed hilltops, etc) on your golf course. Identify ornamentals and non-native species that were planted over the courses life. This information will help in the justification to remove certain trees (i.e. ornamentals) from a locale. Second order of business is to review trees in the context of the original course design. If your club will not support the hiring of a golf course architect, this burden may fall on you and your team. Here is where original course photos and drawings help. As you perform your course walk-overs, take photos with a digital camera in order to incorporate pictures with text in your report and presentation.

Although you may be collecting detail (i.e. hole by hole) information for your tree management plan, a summary of the recommendations should be created for presentation to the board. Presenting a detailed plan at this point can be dangerous, as it may appear that you have a predetermined outcome in mind.

Third step: Present the summary findings to the board and request a small proof of concept project.

The summary of a tree management plan should be ‘chuck full’ of the benefits to be achieved by implementing a plan for the course. It should contain some approximate costs and a timeframe for completion. Before presenting to all the board members, run your summary by those key influencers that you made friends with. They will give you the feedback you need to ensure that the plan is well received.

If all goes well, then present a ‘pilot’ project to the board. The board may have the authority to approve a small project without obtaining the general membership vote. An obvious project should be selected that will have little backlash or negative reaction from the membership. The project should be completed as quickly as possible. This is to ensure limited interruption to the member’s play of a golf hole as well as to keep the project ‘under the radar’. If tree removal is part of this project, grind down or remove the stumps with a backhoe immediately. Backfill the hole, top dress, and seed. Do not allow the area to be under construction or half finished for too long. Members will react positively when they see the obvious benefits the project has delivered and how quickly the job was completed.

Based on the success of the pilot, the detailed plan can be developed. This plan will have to be approved by the board and then the general membership. All the data your team and consultants accumulated must be synthesized into a report. Once the report is ready, the real selling begins. Recruit friends to start conversing with members about the great job done on the pilot and to support a larger initiative. Get your ‘key influencers’ to work on anyone who may possibly be opposed to the plan before the meeting.

Presenting to the membership should be concise and again full of general benefits. Do not let the discussion auger down into this tree or that tree. Point out the rationale and benefits. Be and act knowledgeable. Members, who jump up in these meetings, typically are not well informed or knowledgeable on the subject. Make sure that board members will support you in the meeting when these ‘mindless minorities’ interrupt. As far as order of presentation, it is best to talk about improving the health of landmark trees first before discussing tree removal. This will put people at ease about their beloved landmark trees and will keep the focus that this is an overall plan, not a tree massacre.

What should the plan contain?

The plan document should address all tree management issues and highlight all the benefits to be obtained. Many plans fail to get approved because they focus on just tree removal. This may be the major goal, but sell removal as part of an overall plan.

Therefore, it is important that the plan highlight not just the removal of trees but how the health of existing trees will be improved through pruning, root aeration, etc. It is also important to show how some species can be relocated rather than removed. This will help placate some of the tree huggers. It is recommended that the following elements be included in the plan.

  1. Tree and brush removal: The plan should have a detailed (i.e. hole by hole) labeling of trees to be removed. The benefit should be described and documented for each tree or group of trees that is to go. This documentation will help with any disputes that may come about after the plan is approved. Include costs to outsource the actual cutting, stump grinding and cleanup.
  2. Transplanting (relocation versus removal): An alternative to removing a tree from a location is transplanting. There may be desirable species of trees that when planted as small saplings did not pose a problem. After a decade or more these trees now interfere with lines of play, root systems protrude into tees and greens, etc. Larger trees can be transplanted. A Vermeer 9400, the largest tree spade on the market, can move trees as large as 12 inches in diameter and 40′ in height. Most experts agree that the best times to transplant are late fall when the tree is dormant or early spring. The advantage to late fall in the North is that the turf is firm and will not suffer the extent of damage that will be caused by a large tree spade traversing the course grounds in the wet spring.
  3. Tree pruning: Pruning tree branches will enhance the trees beauty and help improve the growth structure. It can also help prevent the spread of insect or fungal problems in trees. Pruning is part art and part science and should be subcontracted to a certified arborist. They have the proper equipment and are insured. The plan should identify pruning costs.
  4. Rough aeration: All courses perform fairway and green aeration at least twice per year. However, many do not aerate the rough or non-play areas. To improve the health of trees in these areas, aeration should be done every couple of years. The aeration will help break up compacted soil allowing water and air to reach the trees fine root systems. Rough aeration equipment can be rented or the project outsourced.
  5. Root Pruning: As part of the plan you should include a healthy dose of root pruning. Root pruning has a dramatic effect on turf grass health, course appearance and keeping paved cart paths intact. (Cart paths too close to trees buckle over time as the root pushes to the surface.) Root pruning is not an expensive or time-consuming project for the superintendent’s crew. A small Ditchwitch can be rented or you can subcontract the work to your local cable company. Cable companies use a device called a vibratory plow that they use to lay cable across your yard. The device cuts a thin clean line 18 inches below the surface. The affected turf grass heals in days.

By developing a complete tree management plan you will not only accomplish the goals of restoring your courses original strategic design but also improve the health of the golf courses turf grass and specimen trees. You will also improve the chances of acquiring membership approval by addressing a larger and broader program that delivers more benefits to the golf course. Lastly, selling a program like this requires that you understand the club’s politics. It is important that you be able to leverage the political power base to get your plan approved.

The End