When considering the environmental impacts of your operation, it’s best to leave your personal political feelings aside and dispassionately tend to your responsibility as a land manager. Words like “sustainability” can be emotionally charged to some. For others, it’s dismissed as pie-in-the-sky idealism. I shy away from using the word because I don’t think it has a practical definition, especially when it comes to athletic field management.

Like all ideals, sustainability is approachable but ultimately unattainable, like infinity. In other words, one cannot run a sustainable athletic field management operation, one can only run it more sustainably.

Like most of you, I consider myself a strong conservationist when it comes to land care and its environmental impacts. I feel that all sports field managers have bestowed upon them a great communal responsibility to manage the land they’ve been temporarily assigned with the utmost environmental integrity.

By that I mean managing sports fields in ways that maximize the environmental benefits, while at the same time minimizing the negative impacts to the natural environment.

That may not sound very good as a political bite, but it’s really the practical goal that cuts through buzzwords and recognizes that sports fields are one of our best community assets.

Urban landscapes are not wild landscapes and we can’t manage land without some environmental impacts, good and bad. It’s best to base your professional environmental posture in science.

The great thing about science is that it’s always right, whether or not you believe it.

The environmental benefits of a well-maintained stand of turfgrass are well documented, despite what some would have you think. So just maintaining healthy grass and surrounding landscape plants may be the best thing you can do as a sports field manager, environmentally speaking.

How you achieve a healthy stand of turfgrass while accommodating a heavy schedule of play and traffic is key in getting as close as you can to the ideal of a sustainable operation.

Unlike in food crop production, we have no federally monitored standards for what could be called “organic” lawn or landscape management, and there are questions as to whether a replicate program could effectively work in a high-traffic stand of turfgrass like a football field, for example. Still there is a lot we can do to lower any negative impacts in our operation.

Sustainability: What it is, what it isn’t

  • Sustainability isn’t an environmental movement started by a left-leaning political group.
  • Sustainability isn’t about breaking your facility’s maintenance budget.
  • Sustainability isn’t about using strictly organic products, but such products can definitely have their place in sustainable programs.
  • Sustainability isn’t about using synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.
  • Sustainability is about the environment — it’s also about the economics of your operation and your image in the community.
  • Sustainability is for high-budget operations as much as it is for low-budget operations.
  • Sustainability will mean different things to different fields and facilities.

First and most importantly, we can make sure we are in compliance with any and all mandates and regulations within our federal, state and local governments. It can be a daunting task to even determine which environmental regulations your particular operation may be required to comply with – and under which agency they fall – but there are sources for help. Often, your organization’s legal counsel will be a good place to start.

From personal experience, I’ll tell you that most governmental agencies involved in environmental regulation are very friendly and helpful when you approach them wanting to learn how you can best comply.

Conversely, they’re not always so accommodating when they have to seek you out for being out of compliance, usually as the result of some incident.

The environmental regulations you’ll fall under vary from state to state and region to region. They may include programs involved with groundwater protection; surface water protection; pesticide use and storage; irrigation water, drainage/retention/detention ponds; hazardous materials handling, storage, use and notification; local fire department regulations; materials storage and others.

We may not like governmental mandates and regulations, but when we get on a big jetliner, we rarely complain. When striving for a more sustainable field and facility operation, a good compliance management program is not only the law, but also the best path to environmental integrity.

Beyond legal environmental compliance, there’s a lot we can do to run a more environmentally sound facility and field maintenance operation.

In practical terms, that means efficiency in all we do.

Working as the turf manager for the Denver Broncos, I remember the drought of 2002 when Denver Water instituted strong water restrictions. As a commercial water user, we could more or less irrigate and use water as we needed, but we had to achieve a 35 percent reduction or more in overall water use from an average of our last three year’s consumption as a baseline, or face fines. We got there and then some, deadlines compelling actions as they tend to do. A lot of the measures we implemented in the turf department and around the stadium stayed in place, well after the big winter snows and a few wetter years brought us out of drought conditions.

We learned that often, what’s good for our environment is also good for our budget.

In all we do, compliance and efficiency may be our best way to environmental integrity. These may not be cool, new environmental buzzwords, but they are the field manager’s best way to be “eco-friendly”.

Based on my experiences and what I’ve seen in my consulting travels, I offer a few other ideas toward a more sustainable field maintenance operation, realizing the partial nature of this list:

  • Look at your water use. Wet or dry climate, water is a renewable but limited resource vital to our lives. I believe most sports field operations could cut water use (irrigation and other) by a third fairly easily if it were a focus. Further than dialing in your irrigation system, think of little things like blowing off dirty mowers and other equipment with compressed air routinely and wet-washing equipment less often. Sweep more flooring areas like your maintenance shop and hose down less. When you take the time to look, there many ways we can take small bites out of water use that add up.
  • Whenever practical, use a good quality and appropriate plant growth regulator on your turfgrass areas. If you can cut your mowing by half, you can reduce your exhaust output into the air by half also, and in theory double equipment lifespan.
  • Maintain all your equipment by the book.
  • Tap into your facility’s existing sustainability programs, especially waste reduction and recycling programs. Don’t have such programs at your organization? Start a committee.
  • Participate in the new Sports Turf Managers Association Environmental Facility Certification Program.
  • Look into some of the alternatively fueled equipment available on the market.
  • Institute a formal Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program.
  • Learn to understand and follow all product label instructions. Learn how to properly calibrate all of your product application equipment like sprayers and spreaders.
  • Remember, the turfgrass industry is one of the original green industries.