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Rethinking a Golf Course

In an era of rapid climate change, what are the ecological and human costs of golf courses, especially in urban areas? 

The University of Minnesota’s Les Bolstad Golf Course, which is open for public use, is part of its Saint Paul Campus. Transition Town members have been learning about the environmental impact of that course and gathering public opinion on how its 135 acres might be repurposed-- if the University were to make such a project a part of its own Climate Resilience and Adaptation Plan. In fall 2023 two of our members, Mark Robinson and Tracy Kugler, worked with Lola Baudek, a UMN student intern in sustainability studies, to research those questions. 



The Les Bostad Golf Course occupies 135 acres in Falcon Heights, just north of the Saint Anthony Park neighborhood of Saint Paul.  The UMN agricultural fields are the brown areas to the east and southeast of the course.

Scoping out the environmental costs

Their research showed that the Les Bolstad Golf Course uses almost four times as much water per year as the U’s own agricultural fields nearby.  In 2023 it used 26 million gallons. That's more than half of what the neighboring city of Lauderdale uses in a year!​  


Also in 2023, the course spent $27,000 on gasoline and diesel, more than $26,000 on pesticides and more than $21,000 on fertilizer. (These figures come directly from the superintendent of the course.) 


Water use at the golf course (brown) measured against residential water use in Lauderdale (green), with a population of about 2100

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A deceptive appearance

Some looking at a golf course may see only attractive grass and trees. But what does it take to maintain such grounds?  And with further droughts to come, how much more water will be required?  With further floods, how often will the course be waterlogged and unusable?  As habitat is imperiled around the world, is it wise to maintain a golf course that contributes greenhouse gases, pollutes water sources, harms wildlife, and negatively affects human health?    


A possible future

On the other hand, the golf course could be reimagined as a carbon sink, a water purifier and regulator, and a sanctuary for wildlife. Imagine the golf course returned to woodlands or wetlands!  Or planted with native prairie grasses and plants, their roots sequestering carbon in the soil. Or perhaps a combination of these ecosystems, serving educational purposes for the University and for the public. 


The benefits of "natural infrastructure"

Haven’t our city leaders been looking for more areas to plant trees? The UMN Climate Resilience and Adaptation Plan even has the goal of increasing the campus tree canopy! This 135-acre course could serve that purpose.  Imagine a wildlife sanctuary; imagine the birds, pollinators, amphibians, small mammals and reptiles that could find habitat there. Wooded parts of this wildlife area could help regulate water in times of excess rainfall and also mitigate against drought. 


A rewilded natural area so close to both downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis could also counter the heat-island effect that occurs in cities.

Urban trees and green spaces help keep cities cooler during heat waves.

Help heal the watershed 

Let’s also not forget the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used on the golf course.  The golf course is part of the Mississippi River Watershed.  Excess nitrogen from the course ends up in the Mississippi River, contributing to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  

What we put into the Mississippi River affects aquatic life all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

But what about the golfers?

Why the focus on a golf course?  Where will people play golf?  What will happen to the University’s golf team? Well, there are options.  In fact, there are 37 other golfing facilities within a ten-mile radius of Les Bolstad Golf Course (see map below). 

And we've learned that the university golf teams don’t even use Les Bolstad for practice, as it’s too small for their level of play.   


But what about the larger community?  After all, it's open to the public. In a survey of 217 students, community members and UMN staff, we found that 88.4% do not golf at Les Bolstad and 83.3% have no plans to golf there in the future. Given several hypothetical options for use of that land, 56% selected "wildlife sanctuary" as their top preference; only 14% chose to "keep it a golf course."  


The bigger picture

Furthermore, as a country we have pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  That can happen only if, in addition to cutting carbon emissions, we increase the amount of land that acts as a carbon sink, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Converting golf courses is one small step towards reaching net zero.  Other cities (and other colleges) have done it. The Les Bolstad course could serve as another model, if the University takes the lead.


A survey, a petition, and next steps

If you haven’t already, please take our brief survey.  We’d like to know your ideas and feelings on the golf course.


What’s next?  Our next step is to gather enough community support to encourage the UMN Board of Regents to meet with us to discuss an alternative to a golf course.  If you support this idea, please help by signing our online petition (we already gathered 76 signatures during the St. Anthony Park Art Fair in June).



The university's own climate resilience plan states, “The University of Minnesota Twin Cities must also plan for changes in climate that have already happened and will worsen over time. The campus community, infrastructure and energy systems, and environmental assets are and will be affected by climate change.  Creating proactive strategies to adapt and build resilience in all these areas is vital.”   


Given the urgency of quickly responding to the climate crisis, given the University's own climate resilience objectives, we would like the University to consider alternative uses for this land that are climate-friendly and have educational potential: rewilded prairie or woodlands, a wildlife sanctuary, a nature park with trails, or a combination of these.  We hope you’ll help us.   


This project was initiated by Mark Robinson of Saint Anthony Park. In the summer of 2023 he noticed an irony while on a walk through the UMN Saint Paul Campus:  the Les Bolstad golf course stands within sight of the Bee Lab, which champions pollinators through its research and advocacy. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Park Bugle, When values seem askew at the U, contacted Transition Town, and now leads what is becoming a community collaboration. Mark teaches at Kennedy High School in Bloomington,  where he is also a voice for climate action.


He can be reached at


Map:  37 other golfing facilities lie within a
10-mile radius of the Les Bolstad Golf Course

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