Photos by Stephanie Hazen

This spring, Salem’s Illahe Hills Country Club received recognition for its efforts towards environmental stewardship. The acknowledgement by Audubon International was the result of diverse efforts led by Kassi Roosth, Chief Gardener for Illahe, a staff team and the management vision of Bill Swancutt, Golf Course Superintendent.

“Protecting our environment is crucial to ensure that our natural resources – which are essential to our health, quality of life and survival for humans and all other species – are available for the future generations to come,” Roosth says. “Illahe Hills wants to do their part by being as conscientious to the environment as possible and protecting the animals who are both migrating and seeking habitat on the property.”

The 185-acre golf course (on a roughly 205-acre property) runs along the east side of the Willamette River, west of Minto-Brown Island Park. It qualified for the recognition by working with Audubon International to develop a site assessment focused on the unique land and its significant natural resources. Roosth and her team, working with Audubon ‘s guidelines and hundreds of pages of advice, created a plan to evaluate the course’s current environmental management practices and determine appropriate conservation projects.

This process involved assessing turf and natural areas that include a wide variety of mature deciduous and evergreen trees, more than eighty small gardens and three water features, in order to understand important baseline information about the landscape.

ON OUR COVER: Kassi Roosth, Head Gardner for Illahe Golf Course, is working to make the property more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

The result is that the team set environmental management goals that will safeguard and enhance the course in six areas, says Roosth: Environmental Planning, Wildlife and Habitat Management, Chemical Use and Reduction Safety, Water Quality Management, Water Conservation and Education and Outreach to others, such as involving outside Master Gardeners to help plan and implement educational efforts.

Golf courses are traditionally scorned by environmentalists who object to the monoculture of large swaths of lawn turf, the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that keep the grass pristine, the possible overuse of water and the frequent, sometimes daily, mowing done by gasoline–powered mowers.

The Illahe course had two advantages over many; it requires less irrigation than most because of Willamette Valley rainfall and its water is obtained from the adjacent Willamette River and is filtered to remove pollutants.

Swancutt says the course “started down the road toward certification about 15 years ago. It is very time consuming and somewhat technical to try to become certified.”

About six years ago, Swancutt published a booklet titled, “Illahe and the Environment” in which, among other topics, he discussed management ‘s sensitivity to fossil fuels concerns and ways the course was lessening fossil fuel use by changing mowing techniques. He also described some of the ways the course was decreasing water consumption, including by its employment of a computerized central controller and the regular use of spot watering, among other practices.

Dark-eyed junco chicks in a ground nest in a wild area in the middle of the golf course – Photos by Stephanie Hazen

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP), the group that recognized Illahe, is an education and certification program that helps organizations protect the environment while gaining recognition for their efforts. It is currently administered at over 2,300 facilities in the United States. Not associated with the environmentally- active National Audubon Society and coming under scrutiny for its endorsement of golf courses who pay for membership and certification, the organization nonetheless provides extensive recommendations for environmental management practices for golf courses, educating course personnel in caring for the land, wildlife and natural resources under their care.

Included ACSP goals are maintaining natural wildlife habitat in at least 50% of all minimally used portions of the property, connecting small and large natural areas as much as possible to improve wildlife movement through the course, selecting indigenous plants to provide nectar for hummingbirds and other pollinators and maintaining nesting boxes to support bird populations.

By its participating in the program, Illahe Country Club will be involved in numerous projects that enhance habitat for wildlife and preserve natural resources for all in the community.

In early May, Roosth and local birder Stephanie Hazen, a retired veterinarian, nature photographer and advocate for Monarch Butterflies, toured the property and erected four bird nest boxes in sites chosen for optimal use. Hazen was impressed with the property’s potential and diverse landscape and recalls, “We discovered dark-eyed juncos gathering grubs and taking them to their chicks nesting on the ground, watched a chestnut-backed chickadee at its nest cavity in a dead snag, found a red-tailed hawk nest, found bees sleeping in the cold morning on mustard flowers.”

As a future participant in the course’s Outreach component, Hazen says she looks forward to personally leading bird walks on the golf course “to introduce [Salem] Audubon members and Illahe members to the wildlife that are successfully sharing space in this ‘tame’ wild land!”

Noting Roosth’s enthusiasm and the support of Illahe management like Swancutt, Hazen says, “Lots of things had to fall into place to all at once in this project.” 

Roosth moved to Salem four years ago “to be more accessible to the outdoors and to have the freedom to grow my own legal medical cannabis,” she says. Her plans for moving forward with the Illahe property include exploring new ways of composting cuttings, implementing new plantings to enhance environmental and aesthetic goals and outreach to club members about the importance of the wildlife on the property.

“Illahe plans to order our next round of bird boxes through Salem Audubon,” Roosth says, “to ensure the best quality and design for the birds. Our goals include providing homes for nesting cavity birds such as swallows, wood ducks, mergansers and nuthatches.”

She is excited about the future of the Illahe course and the numerous steps necessary to move forward. “It is important for people to understand that small actions really do add up,” she says.

Yearly fees and recertification every three years are required for the property’s continued designation in the Certified Sanctuary program.