Lucia Schatteleyn works a chainsaw through the bottom of a thick wall of Brazilian Pepper – an aggressive invasive plant – at the Wildflower Preserve in Englewood.
Volunteers from the Lemon Bay Conservancy, which owns the land, have to work fast to control the plant. After she chops down a batch, Schatteleyn quickly sprays an herbicide on what remains of the stalks so it won’t grow back.
The hands-on work is necessary to control the plants on the 80-acres that make up the Wildflower Preserve.
“You get the picture,” she said. “Cutting the high branches, cutting it with the little saw and then you bring the big chainsaw, cut all the stumps off, spraying, brush cutter. That’s how we maintain the paths for people to enjoy.”
About eight years ago, this plot of land looked very different. Schatteleyn would have been standing near the 18th hole on the Wildflower Golf Course - on top of meticulously treated grass and strategically plotted clusters of trees.
The transformation of the Wildflower Golf Course into the preserve was the conservancy’s answer to finding use for the land since it acquired it 4 years ago.
The course closed in 2006. Golf courses around the country began closing at an accelerated rate that year in what the National Golf Foundation calls the start of a “market correction.”
That correction is ongoing. In 2013, the foundation reported 157 golf courses closed nationwide. Only 14 opened that year.
Closed golf courses from California to Wisconsin are in the process of transforming into nature preserves like this one.
Now, the conservancy’s job is to undo everything that went into making it alluring for golfers.
While volunteers keep the invasive plants at bay, they only have to look at one pond covered in a thick layer of a tiny, tiny plant called duckweed to see that water quality is also an issue.
Lemon Bay Conservancy Director Eva Furner said duckweed makes it harder for life to thrive in the pond.
“There’s a low oxygen level because there’s so much plant life on the surface of the pond so the fish can’t survive in that pond,” she said.
Water samples also revealed high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the creek and some of the freshwater ponds.
Furner believes these levels could be caused by the combination of fertilizers the golf course used leaching into the water mixing with the way the land was shaped.
Fertilizers can have a lasting effect on the environment.
David Guest is the head of the Florida regional office of Earthjustice, an international environmental law firm. He says fertilizers function as an “insurance policy” – helping the grass stay green.
But, nutrients from fertilizers leach into the soil and end up in waterways.
“So, when you fertilize the golf course, it makes everything turn green, and when you fertilize the water, it turns green, too. You're fertilizing water,” he said. “You also will get a higher risk of a red tide outbreak.”
Guest said modern golf courses are smarter about using fertilizers.
To fight some of the effects, the Conservancy is testing floating foam islands in one pond.
On the island is a type of plant that – as it grows - sucks nutrients out of the pond.
As for pesticides, Guest said modern golf courses use pesticides that biodegrade quickly.
But, older courses, like this one, may have used pesticides that don’t break down.
Guest said pesticides can “bio-accumulate” – meaning their toxic effects don’t go away when consumed, which can work their way up the food-chain.
“You get to high predator like predator fish, tarpons and things like that sort,” he said. “It can really build up to the point where it’s a problem.”
A spokesperson with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which will work with the Conservancy on an upcoming project at the preserve, said the district would only test for pesticides if it believes the site is contaminated. It has no plans to test.
The land was engineered so that water from surrounding neighborhoods could flow onto the golf course.
It works great for irrigation, but it also brings nutrient-rich water into Lemon Bay.
Director Eva Furner said the project with the water district will change the physical shape of the land.
“We’ll look at how do we need to re-contour the land and the wetlands so that the water basically runs through a lot more plant life and surface waters before it hits the bay,” she said, “And those plants will help filter the nutrients out before it gets out into the actual bay system.”
There are only a few hints left in the preserve of its former incarnation as a golf course like a sign or a post lingering in the brush.
Volunteers often find golf balls from a bad shot. Furner says they’re finding a new use for them, too.
“Kids from the middle school are taking those golf balls and they’re going to turn them into a tarpon sculpture and bring it back for us,” she said.
Furner hopes to have most of the invasive plant species removed from the property in about a year and a half. From there, it’s just maintenance.