Past Ten, Next Ten: Interview with Eric Dodson

As we roll through the first year of this decade I've asked two standard questions to a few key players in our industry. I wanted to know their thoughts, from their unique role and perspective, on what we saw over this last ten years and what to expect in the ten to come.

Eric Dodson serves as Chief Executive Officer for Audubon Lifestyles, an organization that fosters sustainability by working to balance the triple bottom line of people, profit, and planet.

Prior to this he worked as Manager of Outreach and Education assisting Audubon International Signature Program members achieve certification. He worked at Audubon International for eleven years as Director of Management Information Systems (MIS) and was responsible for the design, development and maintenance of the Audubon International website, their corporate network, and oversaw every aspect of their computer technology needs. Eric currently sits on the board of directors for the Florida Green Building Coalition, and the International Sustainability Council (ISC). Eric resides in Tampa, Florida and is a Florida Gulf Coast Member of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

Turfhugger: To what degree have environmental issues affected your role through this past decade?

Eric Dodson: Having once been an employee of Audubon International (AI) for nearly 20 years in one capacity or another, and probably more importantly because I am the son of Ronald G. Dodson, who created the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Programs and the Audubon Signature Programs, it has been interesting to me to not only witness the changes that have occurred over the last decade, but also how the past decade deferrers from the decade prior to that.

When golf course certification programs where brought to the forefront in the late 80’s and early 90’s the public reaction by many was shock. This was shock that an environmental non-profit organization was not only reaching out to golf courses and golf course superintendents, but more importantly shock that there was a non-profit organization certifying golf courses as environmentally sound. At the time, the golf course industry was perceived by the general public as being one of the heaviest polluters to the environment, and the AI programs associated with the golf course industry were considered very controversial.

The saying goes, “The first man across the battlefield usually is the first to get shot,” and generally that was proven to be very true in AI’s case. The AI programs and the organization took many punches in its early years from other non-profit organizations, and traditional environmentalists. Many criticized the AI programs as being nothing more than an arm of the golf industry, a farce, and nothing more than an attempt by the golf industry at green washing. But when the dust finally did settle, it was difficult for anyone to downplay the importance that the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Programs and Audubon Signature Programs played in improving the environmental quality of golf courses worldwide. I feel that it ultimately can be shown that the programs that were created over 20 years ago not only proved to be champions for environmental conservation, but also instrumental in changing the generally negative perceptions that the public held regarding golf courses and their environmental impact.

It has been a real privilege for me to personally play a part in that critical change in the golf course industry. Now a couple of decades later, not only has the public perception of golf courses changed dramatically, but I have witnessed hundreds if not thousands of instances of golf courses that were once chastised as the worst of the worst, being held up as havens for wildlife, and champions of water quality and conservation within their communities.

But times have once again changed, and now over two decades after the AI programs first began, they find that they are no longer the only game in town as related to environmental certification. Non-profit organizations around the globe, some of which once scrutinized the AI programs, have now developed certification programs of their own. Unsurprisingly, the grassroots beginnings of the AI programs holds a sense of nostalgia for some, but now are seen as out-of-date to others.

Turfhugger: What major changes will we see in the next Ten Years that will affect your role most significantly?

Eric Dodson: In the 1990’s the AI programs were the only game in town, and the only way for golf courses to gain certification and recognition by a non-profit organization that was not part of the golf industry. Over the last decade, a slew of certification programs, non-profit groups, and businesses who purport to have the latest and greatest certification program sprung up for golf courses, municipalities, buildings, lumber, office supplies, coffee blends – you name it, and there seems to be a certification for it. The AI programs began to find themselves lost amongst the ever growing list of organizations with bigger marketing budgets, and financial backing. And because of the number of certifications available and the constant bombardment of green marketing by “big corporations,” the public has started to grow overwhelmed by it all, and appears to be growing more and more confused by the value that certification actually brings. Many of my colleagues have termed the phenomena “green fatigue”.

In a sense that is one of many reasons that Audubon Lifestyles and the Sustainable Golf Facility Program was developed and launched. Over the next few years, sustainability in all of its forms – the environmental, the economic, and the social, will become the true litmus tests upon which certifications should be deemed relevant, or if they are simply coined as antiquated. Certification to me is only a means to an end. Our goal through the Audubon Lifestyles Sustainable Golf Facility Program is to make sure that golf courses who participate not only are good for the environment, but also are financially sound, and are held up by the local community as true beacons of sustainability.

We once again find ourselves at a crossroads both in the golf course industry and in the “green” movement. The over saturation of certifications in the marketplace have begun to devalue the very programs and certifications they promote. It has also, sadly started to reduce participation in those programs as well. Audubon Lifestyles hopes to increase participation in the Sustainable Golf Facility Program by assisting golf facilities interested in a more sustainable and economically viable certification process. In today’s economic climate, it seems more important than ever to encourage golf facilities to participate in a program that provides a framework for assisting them in becoming financially sound, and socially responsible, in addition to continuing the golf industry campaign of environmental advocacy. While certification is still part of the process, it is not the main purpose, or goal. The goal is, and should be, to increase a golf facilities level of environmental stewardship, economic viability and social betterment – not just certify whether it is, or isn’t.

Being certified should mean something different than what it meant back in the 80s, 90s, and even into the 2000s. To me the next decade launches the natural evolution of what the golf course industry began over 20 years ago when it decided that it needed to change public perception, and to become true advocates of environmental change. We once again find that we need to change the way we think in order to stay relevant with the times. And ten years from now when the current decade comes to a close, I hope that I am once again able to say, “Audubon Lifestyles made a real and meaningful impact to the golf course industry over the last decade, and we look forward to making a difference once again over the course of the next ten years!”