Mini golf game suspended for pollution concerns

Environmental impact of many golf balls in salmon river.

A popular Fairbanks lodge and restaurant has agreed to suspend for now a miniature golf game that allowed customers to try hitting golf balls across the Chena River, while state environmental officials determine the extent of pollution issues.

The management of Pike’s Waterfront Lodge voluntarily agreed to stop offering the game until the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation comes to a conclusion regarding whether the many plastic golf balls falling into the Chena River have an adverse affect on fish habitat of the Chena River. The Chena flows into the Tanana River, which in turn empties into the Yukon River. All three rivers are abundant in salmon habitat.

Customers at Pike’s have for years been allowed to purchase golf balls from the lodge and to hitting them from the restaurant deck across the Chena River to a golf green under a large sign that reads “Love Alaska.” Getting the ball across the river was considered a hole in one, but many of the golf balls have fallen instead into the Chena River.

Marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner, of Anchorage, who worked as a University of Alaska professor in that field in Cordova back in the 1980s, observed the golf game in full swing in July while dining at Pikes en route back from floating a wilderness Arctic river.

He quickly inquired at Pike’s management to ask whether the golf balls were normal plastic polymer construction, or special biodegradable golf balls. Even biodegradable balls would be a concern, and may not comply with state and federal pollution regulations, Steiner said.

Steiner, for the record, said he does not hate golf. “I don’t even play golf, but I do hate trashing our salmon streams and oceans,” he said.

When Pike’s did not respond to his inquiry, he asked DEC to investigate.

Michael Solter, water quality compliance program manager with DEC in Anchorage, said he spoke with the lodge manager, who voluntarily agreed to stop the game until DEC came to a conclusion on the environmental impact of golf balls in the river. Solter is now working with a DEC enforcement officer in the Fairbanks office to try and come up with a solution that works for everybody, he said.

Steiner said he felt that the game, which allows for discarding of plastics into a salmon stream, and ultimately downstream into the ocean, is a clear violation of state and federal water pollution regulations.

“I have great respect for the owner of Pike’s, Jay Ramras, a former Alaska legislator, but we simply cannot be treating our salmon streams and oceans with such disrespect,” Steiner said. “Furthermore, it is illegal,” he added.

Steiner also asked that DEC investigate and if necessary suspend the Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic in Nome, a golf contest on the sea ice off Nome associated with Iditarod festivities. Steiner noted a news article on the classic, which stated “lots of balls were lost in the deep snow, an incentive for swiping someone else’s ball.”

“If indeed the Nome golf contest is using real, plastic polymer golf balls as was Pike’s, it needs to be suspended as well, as it is also clearly illegal,” he said.

He also proposed to DEC and Pike’s that restitution for decades of plastic pollution contributed to the oceans by Pike’s would be a financial contribution to the Gulf of Alaska Keeper.

“This may seem a small problem, and given the amount of plastics entering the world ocean each year, from 4 million to 12 million tons, it is,” he said. But the practice reflects a dismissive attitude, indeed ignorance toward our salmon streams, oceans and the environment in general,” he said. “Alaska’s salmon steams and ocean ecosystems are sacred shrines, that must be respected and protected as such. Golf balls hit into the Chena River do not simply go away, they go downstream.

“And recall the old environmental adage — we all live downstream,” he said.