Tierra Verde Golf Club was the first golf course in Texas and the first municipal course in the world to be certified as an Audubon Signature Sanctuary. Photos courtesy of Tierra Verde.

May 2, 2017

In early spring, as patrons tee up for another round of golf at Tierra Verde Golf Club in Arlington, red tailed hawks glide on rising wind currents overhead. Bluebirds build nests nearby, and the calls of barred owls sound out as evening approaches.

Amid the noisy traffic and densely packed surburban sprawl, Tierra Verde and its neighboring Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Complex form a huge refuge for both humans and wildlife in South Arlington. The city-owned golf course is proving that with careful design and conscientious practices, land development doesn’t always have to pit human interests against the environment.

“We have quite a few roadrunners; that's one of the unique things about our little ecosystem here is we're a great habitat for roadrunners," says Mark Claburn, superintendent of golf operations for the Arlington Parks and Recreation Department. "We have about eight or nine nesting pair that stay here throughout the year that we see all the time.” 

“We typically will have in our water bodies great blue herons and kingfishers; you're going to see those almost every day. It's kind of cool as the year goes on you're going to see huge groups of swifts hunting on the water bodies – kind of like a big tornado of swifts, skimming the water.”

TIerra Verde Hole 16In 2001, the environmental conservation organization Audubon International certified Tierra Verde as an Audubon Signature Sanctuary. It was the first golf course in Texas and the first municipal course in the world to achieve this distinction. The course’s architects and management worked with the organization to design the facility so that waterways would not be disturbed and wildlife habitat would be maintained. Additionally, they developed a plan for sustainable practices that reduce the use of polluting chemicals onsite and protect water quality downstream.

The pond at Hole 16 features a natural shoreline.

“Tierra Verde worked with our golf course architects, Graham and Panks International, Audubon international, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Arlington Golf division to create a golf course design that was sustainable and maximized naturalized areas while still having a championship level golf course,” says Claburn.

“The fantastic piece of land that we purchased for the property had been used mainly as a farm and small cattle operation, but over a hundred acres were undeveloped. With Arlington being in the middle of a highly urbanized Metroplex, it was a priority to maximize the green space we had. The design of the course also allowed us to have a competitive product with fewer staff to maintain and fewer inputs for maintenance.

Tierra Verde owl“Tierra Verde Golf Club has 260 acres and we only utilize roughly 90 for golf and the operation of the course; the remaining acreage is kept as environmentally sensitive areas, and serve as wildlife corridors within the property.

“We added 10,000 linear feet of shoreline with over 90 percent of that shoreline having 20 to 50 feet of native vegetation to act as a buffer and bio filter to protect the water. It also allows wildlife to access the water with cover to prevent predation.

Master naturalist Donna Piercy says she’s spotted about 75 bird species at Tierra Verde. Pictured a barred owl.

“Native trees were kept throughout the property and the construction team was penalized for disturbing the environmentally sensitive areas of the course.”

Claburn says the course maintenance practices are 85 percent organic with only an occasional use of conventional chemical products. For the most part, he strives to use fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides that are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute. This includes heavy use of compost, and rather than fungicides that contain copper which can pollute the environment, Claburn uses a solution with hydrogen peroxide that breaks down merely into water and oxygen. 

“The major things that we do is we typically would never apply a synthetic pesticide or fungicide. And those are the big things that impact the wildlife more than anything else,” Claburn says.

The groundskeepers are also tasked with eradicating invasive plant species, like Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese privet, while bolstering areas of native trees and grasses.

Tierra Verde hole 14A wildlife-friendly water source at Hole 14 at Tierra Verde.

The result of the conscientious initial design and continuing low-impact practices is a world-class golf course that Avid Golfer magazine ranks as one of the top ten courses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Avid Golfer goes on to praise the wildlife habitat for its aesthetic appeal, writing:

“If you are a range rat, you could spend an entire weekend out at Tierra Verde, which wouldn’t be a bad idea. The surrounding Audubon Signature Sanctuary makes players feel like they are miles away from everything else.”

Claburn says each hole has beautiful fairways and strategically placed bunkers and water hazards and that the native trees and grasses bring a unique quality to enjoy. Adding to the scenery is a series of lakes than cover just under 10 acres.

“The first thing that you notice that separates us from a lot of the golf courses is each hole is on its own; you don't really see one golf hole from another golf hole,” Claburn says. “There is a lot of movement here – a lot of rolling hills - and then it kind of slides down to the back of the golf course into a creek. So there is a lot of elevation change and and quite a few open vistas just for the golf areas and tall trees around virtually every hole.”

Most recently, the course has implemented a wildflower area and Monarch waystation to help the declining butterfly species migrate through the area. Claburn says that bee hives are being added too.

Tierra Verde butterfly“We just acquired an additional three acres and we're going to put bees there and and we're going to plant wildflowers in that area, just to give a home for pollinators. We're putting up an additional two Monarch waystations on the golf course and plant food specifically marked for Monarch butterflies,” Claburn says.

Tierra Verde has recently added a Monarch waystation on the property.

Owned and operated by the city of Arlington and sustaining its budget from the income it brings in from patrons, Tierra Verde Golf Club serves as a demonstration of how wildlife habitat protection and commercial interests can co-exist.

“We supply tours to groups of interested parties, or you can come play a few holes and do the self-conducted tour, golf,” Claburn adds. “We do a lot of garden groups and master naturalists and environmental science programs.”

Local resident and master naturalist Donna Piercy says she’s spotted about 75 bird species at Tierra Verde as she works with Cross Timbers Master Naturalist Chapter to install bluebird boxes on the grounds.

“My favorites are the red-shouldered hawk, roadrunner, painted bunting and of course, the eastern bluebird,” Piercy says. “Who doesn't enjoy birdsong or watching the flight of a creature that may fly thousands of miles just to be here? Nature refreshes and invigorates us. It can help heal us. And as we are all interconnected, we feel good that effort is being made to help sustain creatures that share the earth with us.”

Tierra Verde provides green space that breaks up the population density of the city, mitigating the urban heat island effect and buffering storm water after heavy rainfalls. Golfers and those who reside in the area may appreciate the beauty the course brings, but the wildlife that lives onsite wholly depends on the ecosystem-sustaining practices that the course has implemented.

“We keep a wildlife inventory and we have documented 154 varieties of birds, and over 80 species of mammals, reptiles and fish species-everything from white tailed deer and bobcats to hoary bats. If it comes to North Texas, more than likely we have seen it here,” Claburn says.

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