Carved into Spruce Peak, the 18-hole Mountain Course is at once a rugged setting offering breathtaking views of Mt. Mansfield, and a pristine compilation of manicured greens and fairways. But it’s not just the scenic atmosphere that sets this green apart. From its inception, the course was conceptualized through a lens of sustainable development, a focus that played an integral role in laying its foundation, and continues to inform its daily operations.
During the initial development phase in 2004, the late golf course architect Bob Cupp drafted 26 different iterations to avoid infringing on what was discovered to be a black bear habitat. The course eventually became the first in the state to be named a Vermont Green Links designated golf course for its environmental best practices. Fifteen years later, the Mountain Course remains true to the land on which it was constructed—all without compromising a world-class golf experience.
Charting The Course
Both the layout and construction of the course were carefully planned to avoid negative environmental impacts. For example, the bridge that connects the 11th and 12th holes was created when the development team decided to revive and protect a damned-up culvert. “We restored the stream to its original state to promote fish habitats,” says director of agronomy Kevin Komer. “Then we put native plantings, like willow, along the edge to provide shade.”
The team also worked to preserve pre-existing vegetation, such as the hobblebush shrubs that can be found lining the perimeter of the golf holes. Fallen trees were left to serve as homes for birds and other animals. When building the 18th hole, the team made sure to protect a key tributary. Though they would have preferred a wider fairway here, they narrowed the hole in order to uphold a buffer around the tributary to preserve its water quality. “Anywhere else, Komer[golf course developers] would’ve blown in there and gotten rid of the tributary or piped it all down, but we maintained this natural stream,” Komer says.
going for the green
These protective buffers comprise at least 50 feet of undisturbed indigenous vegetation and can be found throughout the course. They are strategically placed to surround the drain lines that exit the property in order to filter wastewater. Being at the top of the watershed, Spruce Peak has to be extra careful of their environmental impact on H2O. (After all, everything that happens up high has a literal trickle-down effect.) With that in mind, the team implemented a closed-loop system for washing golf course equipment ensuring the water is recycled and there’s no off-site pollution. A computerized irrigation system was put into place to monitor via sensors the level of saturation in the grass, so that the fairway won’t draw more water than needed. There’s even a composting toilet equipped with a solar panel.
Cupp also plotted the landscaping using environmentally conscious procedures. His crew maintained as much existing flora as possible, keeping new plantings to a minimum. Indigenous species abound—flowering perennials like painted trillium, trout lily, goldenrod, and Jack-in-the-pulpit; shrubs such as serviceberry, winterberry, and red-osier dogwood; sugar maple, white ash, beech, and Eastern hemlock trees. The 14th hole (the highest point on the course, at an elevation of 1900 feet) is located in a spruce forest. The Mountain Course is one of the first in the country to plant specific areas of wildflowers to promote pollinator habitat.
To help endemic vegetation thrive, Komer’s agronomy team curtails invasive species—namely loosestrife and Japanese knotweed. Workers cut the plants at early stages of growth, which weakens them over time. They also select pesticides that promote a healthy turf, able to defend itself from disease; in turn, fewer pesticide applications are required. “We invest heavily in seaweed products, which boost the plants’ immune Grasssystem,” Komer says.
These strategies, and countless others, helped the course earn its prestigious designation as Audubon’s first Certified Signature Sanctuary in Vermont. As part of this award, The Mountain Course is regularly evaluated for wildlife conservation and habitat enhancement, integrated pest management, water conservation, and environmental education and outreach.
For Komer, while the Audubon certification represents a significant achievement, the practices that led to it were, well, par for the course. His mentality is that, when you build something, you build it right—in a thoughtful manner that nourishes nature, rather than exploiting it.
The result is an unparalleled, at times otherworldly, golf experience, resplendent with Mansfield’s savage beauty. “A lot of people say the Mountain Course is the best 18 holes of their life, because it’s this unique piece of property,” Komer says. “We get a lot of inversions up here, which is when we can look down and see the clouds below in Stowe village, but we’re above them, in the sunshine—it’s like magic.”
empowering the next generation
Since 2006, Komer has organized an educational program with the mission of teaching young people about eco-friendly development. Each year, fifth graders at Stowe Elementary School take a field trip to the Mountain Course. “We explain how we built the course with a sustainable mindset and focus on water quality,” says Komer, who calls this the most rewarding part of his career. The kids then participate in a land use development simulation, where small teams of students take on the role of mock “developers,” and are given a plot of land to transform into a working part of the community, with minimal environmental impact. “For me, this field trip validates all of the hard work that has gone into building the Mountain Course and the continued efforts in maintaining it.”