Public workshop held on Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club’s proposed tree management program

By Karen Billing

The Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club held a public meeting on Jan. 22 to receive input and explain the purpose behind its proposed tree management program, which includes the removal of a significant number of trees.

“Everything we do is for the good of the course,” said Bill Roberts, chairman of the greens committee, the group responsible for recommending improvements for the golf course.

Roberts said a healthier tree forest means healthier turf, creating an incentive for a healthier membership.

A landscape plan along the golf course trails is still to come and the tree plan must go through the Art Jury and RSF Association board approval process, which is expected to happen sometime in February. Trees planned for removal are currently marked and there are stakes in the ground where new trees will be planted.

As the RSF Association owns the golf club, the club is sensitive to how the community sees what is being proposed.

“We’re trying to build and maintain a world-class golf club. We have a responsibility to maintain the golf club for people who pay $50,000 to play golf here,” said Tim Hamilton, a 37-year member of the club and former green committee chair.

Hamilton said to keep the club a world-class facility there will need to be some compromises as they deal with dynamics they cannot control, such as the difficult soil, the climate and insect infestation.

“Every decision they make is a compromise and they’ll do the best they can if you let them,” Hamilton said.

The driving factor behind the tree removal is to improve winter playing conditions. The club is also looking to be proactive in removing trees that are thin, weak and vulnerable, as well as species that are nearing the end of their natural lives.

One option as an alternative to removing the trees is “sand capping” the fairways, adding a layer of sand mix to restore the natural contours, improve the draining and replacing the turf.

Unfortunately, sand capping is very expensive and time consuming, Roberts said. It could cost up to $250,0000 and the fairways would have to be shut down for 60 to 90 days.

In preparation for the tree removal plan, the club spent over a year looking at the trees individually.

Dave Fleming, golf course architect, said the management plan takes aim specifically to counteract conditions of invasive insects such as lerp psyllids, tortoise beetles and citrus psyllids.

They are also looking at groups of eucalyptus, California pepper trees and blackwood acacias out on the course that are dying and in decline.

With the new plan, they have focused on trees with a natural resistance to those invasive insects, as well as species that give the course more diversity while being compatible with the Rancho Santa Fe landscape theme, according to Fleming.

“There is a lack of landscape theme currently, it’s a random mix,” Fleming said. “This is an elegant golf course and this is plant by birds, nothing carries a theme.”

Fleming said they would like to broaden the “estate-style” landscape and introduce more California natives. Not only does the diversity improve the aesthetic look of the course, it also prevents one insect coming in and wiping out an entire tree crop.

Fleming said they need to create more open spaces between the tree groups to limit the tree-to-tree spread of insects, as well as allow healthy sunlight to get to the grass during the winter months. The course is very unusual in that it runs east to west and the sun is always below the horizon in the wintertime.

During those winter months, the course undergoes what Fleming calls the “ice cube effect.” When the sun angles are low, the clay soil fills with water and those 28-degree nights can freeze the soil. With the trees blocking the sunlight, it creates a cube of ice and basically turns the course to mud.

“There’s a real benefit to opening up the trees for the tree’s health and for the turf’s health,” Fleming said. “How can you sell this to a new member as a great golf club when you have to put up with these turf conditions four to five months a year? This turf doesn’t have a chance.”

Some members voiced concerns about trees targeted for removal at specific holes. Some of the trees appear to be healthy, others once removed will strategically hurt the hole, the members voicing concern said.

As an example, there were questions about some pine trees coming out near the 12th hole.

Roberts said that they can’t grow grass under the pine needles because they have a mulching effect. Additionally, because it is shaded so much, [the 12th hole] has become one of their worst fairways, Roberts said.

Roberts said he understands what people are saying and he’s the “biggest tree hugger there is.”

“There’s no personal agendas, there’s reasons behind every one of [the decisions],” Roberts said. “Every decision was made with the best interest of the course in mind.”

Member Jed Stirnkorb said that when he looked at the reasons given behind each tree, he appreciated the detail and time that went into each decision.

“I can embrace a lot of what we’re doing but I’d still like to see if there’s a counterproposal and some trees are kept because I think a few are key to the holes out there,” Stirnkorb said.