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Points North

Golf courses in northern Michigan are being turned into nature preserves

Mitchell Creek Meadows in Traverse City is a former golf course that's now being turned into nature preserve.
Noah Jurik
Mitchell Creek Meadows in Traverse City is a former golf course undergoing ecological restoration.

Research shows around 200 golf courses have closed every year since the early 2000s. All those closures open up an opportunity for conservation.

Golf is in decline these days, and many courses are closing across the country. Experts attribute that decline to rising rates and waning interest.

“Fewer people are able to or interested in participating,” said John Crompton, a professor in the Department of Parks and Recreation at Texas A&M University. “So you have fewer rounds per course and you raise prices some more. It’s an ever-spiraling circle.”

Crompton has studied this decline, and says about 200 courses have folded every year since the early 2000s.

The steady closure of courses doesn’t bode well for the golf industry. But when a course goes belly up, it leaves behind an opportunity for conservation.

When the former Mitchell Creek Golf Course was purchased by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy in 2019, it was part of a national trend: golf courses being turned into nature preserves.

At Mitchell Creek Meadows on the south side of Traverse City, that transition hasn’t been easy.

“The fields had already gone fallow. It wasn’t a smooth manicured property when we acquired it,” said Angie Bouma, senior land steward at the conservancy. “We do have a seed bank to contend with and that will be one of the challenges.

Bouma has been spearheading restoration efforts at the new preserve, along with Chris Garrock, the stewardship director.

“If we had this turned over to us the day the golf course had shut down, it would be a much different situation,” Garrock said.

But the property changed hands several times since the last round of golf was played here. Now, 16 years later, staff and volunteers are busy removing the invasive plants that have taken hold.

They're especially targeting autumn olive, an aggressive, thorny shrub native to Eastern Asia.

“With the lack of natural predators and these other advantages that they have, they very easily take over a property and create a monoculture,” Garrock said. “That squeezes out our native plants.”

Staff and volunteers will spend years spraying herbicide, mowing, and digging up the roots of these invasives. They’re even planning on grazing a herd of goats out here.

“They do a fantastic job on invasives,” Bouma said. “We’re planning on having a small goat barn here where the goats can rotate through and mow down the autumn olive.”

Even with the herbivorous helpers, it will be years before Mitchell Creek Meadows opens to the public.

But Bouma and Garrock envision recreational trails here for hiking or biking. They also want to open a space for volunteers to gather, in the former clubhouse.

A couple hours north on Highway 31, another golf course went up for sale recently. The Little Traverse Bay Golf Club went out of business last year. It was an 18-hole course sitting above Harbor Springs.

Ray Gaynor
Offield Family Viewlands

The property is now called the Offield Family Viewlands, named after the donors who made its purchase possible. With views of the Little Traverse Bay and even Beaver Island on a clear day, it made an ideal candidate for public land.

The conservancy has already started restoration work here. About seven thousand tree seedlings have been planted on what was the back nine, and prairie grass has been seeded on the front side to maintain the views.

“We’re optimistic that these meadows will start to look beautiful,” said Derek Shiels, stewardship director for the Little Traverse Conservancy. “Right now they’re very patchy.”

Shiels says the property’s past use makes the restoration work easier. For years, herbicide was sprayed on the golf course, keeping out weeds that would have competed with the native species being planted now.

If you’re going to make it a priority to do active land management, you really want that competition out of there,” Shiels said. “We saw an opportunity to get onto the meadow restoration right away.”

Even though the work is far from finished, the Offield Family Viewlands has quickly become the conservancy’s most popular property for visitors.

But the newly protected land is good for more than just human recreation; the conservancy’s work here will also reconnect a fractured forest.

"Any golf course is a good target, but this one particularly is surrounded on three sides by state land,” said Shiels. “We can do significant restoration work by filling in some of these fairways with trees, and reconnecting the habitat with the surrounding state land."

The Mitchell Creek Meadows Preserve in Traverse City likely won’t open to visitors until 2023. Even so, its protected status will benefit the communities of plants, animals and humans nearby.

Before the golf course, this place was a rich conifer swamp – a threatened habitat type in Michigan. You can see remnants of it along the northern edge of the property, where cedar trees line a few small streams. Cedar roots act like a natural filtration system, cleaning up harmful bacteria like E. coli.

That’s especially important here, in the heart of the Mitchell Creek Watershed. This water ends up in East Grand Traverse Bay, where Traverse City gets its drinking water.

Mitchell Creek Meadows and Offield Family Viewlands are just two of many nature preserves established on former golf courses. As these fractured habitats get pieced back together, visitors will be looking for a different kind of “birdie” on these greens for years to come.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.