Can Disc Golf Courses Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires?

Alex Williamson avatar
Alex WilliamsonWriter, Editor
Jun 9, 2021 • 10 min read
No real fire, but a fiery sunrise at Bear Mountain Disc Golf Course in Colorado. The course could be a blueprint for designers in the American west for how to design and maintain courses in ways that restore local ecosystems while also mitigating the risk of extremely damaging wildfires. Photo uploaded to UDisc Courses by freeheeler.

For many years, Dan Hart had wanted to leave city life behind and move to the mountains outside of his home in Denver, Colorado. Hart was in his 50s, and though he had only discovered disc golf in his late 40s, part of the mountain dream included buying a property with enough room for a full-size disc golf course.

It took some searching, but Hart found a place in Bailey southwest of Denver that ticked all the right boxes. It had a great house and 40 acres (16 hectares) that were largely wooded mountain terrain.

After Hart bought the property, he didn't just start hacking out disc golf fairways. His new land was in an area where wildfires were likely, and he wanted to create a detailed land management plan that would minimize the risk of a catastrophic wildfire while also bolstering local ecosystems.

"We were committed to maximizing the health of the forest while we owned the property," Hart said.

So Hart hired an expert forester to take a look at his land and help him develop a management strategy. He also visited another site the forester was advising on so he could see for himself what fire mitigation practices looked like. Throughout this process, Hart kept being surprised by something.

"As the forester was describing a plan of action for us to caretake and be good stewards of the land, one of the most interesting things was that everything he was describing was translating directly into what was in my head for good disc golf," Hart said.

Encouraged, Hart both implemented the strategies the forester suggested and went ahead with construction of a course.

A woman in tye-dye shirt and black running shorts putting at a disc golf basket in wooded, mountainous area
A player enjoying disc golf at Bear Mountain. Photo uploaded to UDisc Courses by mooredisc817

It seems that what was in Hart's head for good disc golf matches the expectations of many disc golfers. In 2012, he opened Bear Mountain Disc Golf Course, and in 2021 the course earned the #27 spot on our list of the 100 best disc golf courses in the world and is also one of Colorado's top disc golf courses. At the same time, he's created what he described as a "half-mile defensible fire line between the neighborhood and the national forest" and witnessed his land's ecosystems rejuvenate, diversify, and thrive.

These outcomes raise an interesting question. With wildfires increasing in number and size over the last two decades in the western U.S., could strategically managed disc golf courses provide environmentally friendly fire buffer zones for communities while simultaneously being spaces for healthy recreation?

In search of an answer, we examined the history and science informing the forestry practices Hart utilizes and how those practices tend to create an ideal landscape for disc golf. Bruce Benninghoff, the forestry expert who helped Hart develop his forest management strategy, aided us in this pursuit. Benninghoff has a degree in forestry and spent 31 years with the U.S. Forest Service before becoming a forestry consultant for private landowners.

America's Changing Views of Wildfires

A cartoon bear in jeans and park ranger hat holding a shovel stands next to a sign saying "Please Be Careful! Prevent wildfires."
Smokey Bear has encouraged U.S. citizens to prevent forest fires since 1944 when WWII made timber supplies critical to protect. Some believe Smokey has helped contribute to an errant but commonly-held belief that all forest fires are detrimental.

In order to fully appreciate the tactics Hart employs at Bear Mountain, we should take a look at how those tactics fit into the United States' historical stances toward wildfires.

From around the end of the 19th century until the 1970s, the public position of the U.S. government was that all forest fires were a public hazard. Giant fires like one that took out more than 4,500 square miles/11,655 square kilometers of forest in Idaho, Washington, and Montana in 1910 helped cement this stance. They made many influential people see wildfires as nothing more than destroyers of valuable timber that additionally posed a risk to citizens' livestock, property, and lives.

This meant that through much of the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service worked diligently to detect and suppress every forest fire on federal lands as quickly as possible and offered financial incentives to state authorities to do the same. It also mounted large public awareness campaigns aimed at getting citizens to report forest fires and do everything they could to prevent them from starting.

Though the strategies seemed effective in the short-term, they were actually laying the groundwork for catastrophe later on, especially in the western United States.

Many western forests evolved under conditions where fires were a regular occurrence. For example, the area where Hart lives historically experienced a fire every 15-25 years or so. When these fires came through, they cleared out pine cones, needles, fallen trees, and some younger trees. However, healthy, mature trees typically survived because previous fires had reduced the fuel load enough to keep future fires from burning too intensely.

A wooded area with clear areas with no vegetation between patches of trees
What many people think of when they think of "forest" is far from what western forests looked like when low-intensity fires were a normal occurrence. This photo shows a forest that's been managed to mimic conditions before widespread fire suppression in the United States. Photo courtesy of Benninghoff.

When the Forest Service waged war on wildfires, it interrupted such beneficial cycles, which, as Benninghoff explained, created a wide variety of problems.

"The exclusion of fire brought about the survival of too many seedlings and saplings," Benninghoff said. "By the turn of the century, ponderosa [pine] and dry mixed-conifer forests were suffering from too many trees, which forced trees to compete for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. The competition for resources becomes intense during dry years. The forests, particularly the over-mature trees, become very susceptible to insects, disease and wildfire. When wildfire burns through these overcrowded forests, it finds abundant ladder fuel and benign surface fires quickly become raging crown fires which kill everything, leaving no seed source for future forests."

"Ladder fuel" refers to young trees and brush that allow fires to climb into the vulnerable canopies of mature trees.

In the 1960s, research began to point out these issues and since the 1970s, Forest Service policy and messaging have become far more fire friendly. However, the political will to fund the enormous effort it would take to bring every U.S. forest back to a more natural state after many decades of fire suppression has never emerged, so many forests remain tinderboxes awaiting a spark. And those sparks have become ever more frequent due to a rise in residential areas being built near large forests and the effects of climate change.

Why Fire Mitigation Makes for Great Disc Golf

A man in an orange shirt and with ear protection on uses a large machine in the woods
A worker with Splintered Forest Tree Services doing some work recently at Bear Mountain that helped with the never-ending job of fire mitigation. If you look closely, you'll see a disc golf basket in the background.

The land management strategies Hart utilizes at Bear Mountain have their roots in the research that proved the Forest Service's old fire policies were misguided and that frequent, low-intensity fires are beneficial to certain forests. However, this doesn't mean that Hart regularly sets areas of his land ablaze. Instead, he culls and trims trees and regulates the amount of ground fuel in a way that mimics what fires previously did in his region.

Benninghoff gave a general description of the landscape he advised Hart to create.

"The ideal situation to strive for is patches of varying sizes of even-aged trees," Benninghoff said. "In other words a patch of baby trees (seedlings and saplings), a patch of pole-sized trees (teenagers) and patches of mature trees. Each age class is represented in a distinct piece of ground. We don’t want small trees growing under mature trees because that is ladder fuel."

Creating generous amounts of space between tree patches also produces breaks in ground fuel produced by the trees such as cones, needles, and fallen branches. Such breaks reduce the speed at which a fire could spread. Because the land Hart purchased had been unnaturally protected from fire for so long, those spaces were much smaller and rarer than they would have been had nature been left to its own devices. This means that Hart's quest to restore his land to a natural state that's resilient in the face of fire has included the removal of large numbers of trees.

A man uses sheers connected to a long pole to trim a low-hanging branch from a tree
Dan Hart doing some trimming on his course. Low-hanging branches are also ladder fuel that's best to remove.

"The forester said thirty trees an acre is just fine," Hart said. "That way they'll all have enough space, sunlight, water, and nutrition. I have spaces on my property where I have thirty trees in an area the size of a small garage. So I'm sure I've taken down trees numbering in the thousands at this point."

Though it may be hard to believe, such strategic thinning of tree populations in areas where fire was historically part of the ecosystem can actually promote forests' health and make them better able to capture and retain carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Additionally, returning fire-prone areas to a more natural state is beneficial for native animal populations.

If you're a disc golfer, you may be starting to realize why everything Hart learned about modern fire mitigation strategy jived so well with his vision of a great disc golf course. To recap in brief, Hart was told he needed to create a place that had lots of open areas separating patches of trees and was cleared of most brush and debris. Open patches separating trees? You've got your fairways. Little brush or debris? Fewer places for discs to get lost.

It doesn't hurt that most people tend to find such landscapes extremely pleasing to the eye, either.

Bear Mountain: A Model Worth Replicating?

View of a mountainous terrain with intermittent patches of trees in grass
A nice view from a teeing area at the Bear Mountain course. Photo uploaded to UDisc Courses by bcp02c

With sustainable land management practices and disc golf appearing to be such a perfect pairing, it's interesting to consider whether areas looking to mitigate their risk of catastrophic wildfires should think about using disc golf courses as part of their strategy. The costs of managing the land could be offset somewhat by the economic benefits of out-of-town visitors coming to play the course or even by making such courses pay-to-play (not to mention the very high value of preventing a catastrophic wildfire). Additionally, in areas with an established disc golf community, there would likely be a good number of people willing to volunteer their time to help with maintenance.

This is something Hart can attest to.

"Disc golfers like building new courses and maintaining them," Hart said. "They take pride and ownership. I've had so many people help me with this course – it's a beautiful thing."

However, one thing disc golfers might have a hard time reconciling themselves to is the need for fire-resilient landscapes to constantly change, which means favorite fairways and holes might have to disappear entirely as the forest develops.

Men in casual clothes trimming and cutting down trees in a wooded area
A group helping with maintenance at Bear Mountain. Notice the significant amount of space between trees.

"Too often landowners view the forest on their property as being as permanent as the rock features," Benninghoff said. "The forest is a living, reproducing, and dying thing. It is like humans in that as the individuals grow old they become more susceptible to insects and disease and general loss of vigor. There are limits  to how long individuals can live. The management of the forest should strive to perpetuate a dynamic ecosystem rather than individual old trees."

Additionally, overuse of areas by humans could make it difficult to reconstruct the natural balance that once reigned in the west. Hart combats this by simply limiting the number of people he allows to play Bear Mountain. He says this has the added benefit of making the playing experience more enjoyable and special for those who visit. If another person or community decided to take up a similar project, setting up a system for tee times could help with issues of overcrowding.

All in all, though there would certainly be challenges to overcome, the example of Bear Mountain suggests that creating properly managed disc golf courses could provide ecological, environmental, and communal benefits to western areas where conditions are ripe for forest fires. And if you ask Hart, the feeling of knowing you've done so much good couldn't be better.

"The payoff is immense for me personally, the satisfaction of helping the forest out," Hart said. "For me, it's a labor of love."

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