When a golf course is built on special land, do the economic benefits outweigh the environmental impact?

ABERDEEN, Scotland – Across rolling dunes, Trump International Golf Links rises above the North Sea along Scotland’s northeastern coast.

It is a stunning setting, but also a setting filled with controversy.

The course lies partially on on Foveran Links, an area designated by the United Kingdom as a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI), which is protected land, raising concern among environmentalists since well before President Donald Trump’s company opened it in 2012.

Protected or scientifically important land used for a golf course is controversial but do the economic benefits outweigh the environmental?

Before Trump International broke ground, the landscape was a “special and unique sand dune” system according to Jonathan Smith, founder and executive director of  the Golf Environmental Organization, an international non-profit based in Prestwick, Scotland, that works with courses worldwide to make them environmentally friendly and sustainable.

“The rapid rise in golf, overall, has been a great thing for the sport,” Smith said. “At the same time that rapid rise in golf was taking place, there was also a thing called the sustainability movement happening.”

The term “links golf” comes from “linksland,” the name given to the sandy areas sculpted by wind and water that link the land to the sea. It is the most recognizable feature of Scottish golf.

However, those linksland areas also are environmentally fragile, which is why the Trump development was so controversial.

To be clear, the SSSI designation does not prohibit construction of a golf course on the land.

Areas with SSSI designation still can be developed in Scotland if the project is expected to be of great economic benefit.

The Scottish government made such a determination regarding Trump International in a report released in 2008, concluding that the economic and social advantages of the development at national, regional and local levels justified the potentially adverse environmental consequences.

The report made the case that the course could bring 1,400 jobs and contribute $83 million (U.S.) annually to the Aberdeenshire area while addressing a need to diversify the regional economy. With that, Trump International received the go-ahead.

The question is, should we be worried about losing relatively rare and unusual natural habitats to build something that provides economic benefit?” said David Patterson, executive director at Marine Alliance for Science and Technology, a consortium of organizations that support a healthier environment through policies informed by marine research.

The specific area Trump sought to build on included part of a dune system that was moving along the shoreline. These ever-evolving dunes are a naturally occurring phenomenon with rolling ridges of sand, according to Scottish National Heritage (SNH), a public body devoted to protecting and promoting Scotland’s sensitive areas.

“People were asking if there was an alternative,” Smith said. “They weren’t necessarily saying, ‘no development.’ A lot of people were asking for sensitive rerouting, maybe shifting some of the construction out of the most sensitive spot into some of the more degraded parts of the land.”

SNH classified the Foveran Links as one of most unique sand-dune habitats in the UK.

“I think we should be proud of Trump International in Aberdeen,” said Jonas Hedberg, golf operations manager at Trump International Golf Links. “It is part of the Aberdeen identity now. It is ranked in the top 50 golf course in the world, and people forget about that sometimes. That is an incredible achievement.”

In its most recent list of the top 100 courses in the world, Golf magazine ranked Trump’s layout in Aberdeen 46th, describing its “glorious North Sea vistas” and touting it as a possible future home to the British Open, one of golf’s four major championships.

Despite the acclaim and breathtaking scenery, the development remains controversial.   

“There was a lot of anxiety about what would happen if a golf course was built on this site,” Patterson said. “For that reason, there was a lot of protest about the potential changes a golf course would make on that particular system.”

Trump International first had to convince Scottish National Heritage and the Scottish government of the development’s potential benefit to the area.

Initially, SNH declined the application. In 2008, it determined the development would damage the SSSI area. However, the Scottish government took the decision out of the hands of the SNH.

“They made a decision at a governmental level, and that decision suggested that the economy of the area was more important than the protection of the environmental system,” Patterson said. “So, the ruling was overturned, and the course was allowed to begin development.”

The SNH counseled Trump International that the site should no longer by classified as SSSI. They concluded that the site has been “partially destroyed” due to course development, according to a report from the British Broadcasting Corporation.

“We know the SNH are considering removing the SSSI status from that area because now there is a golf course,” Patterson said. “It has lost a lot of the aspects that made it suitable to declare as an SSSI. Of course, many people would be saddened to see the quality of our landscape is declining and that were removing SSSI status.”

The reaction in Aberdeen was mixed.

“One side was defending the importance of the environment,” Patterson said. “The other one was of a local opinion that the economy would improve. And of course in their original submission, a great many jobs were promised. But it was not simply the locals against Trump. There were some locals that would’ve been supportive as well.

Hedberg said Trump International continues to try to better the community and surrounding environment.

This was never going to be a quick turnaround for some cash,” Hedberg said. “This is a much bigger project than that. It is developing the greatest golf course in the world. And along with that will come a range of opportunities for the area.”

Six years have passed since the course opened and there is now hard evidence on the impact the course is having on the area.

Studies have found that some of the original promises from Trump International have not been met, including infrastructure improvements such as a sewer link from the course to the city. And the studies found the number of jobs created has fallen short of projections.

“I think we’ve created hundreds of jobs,” Hedberg said. “We have a great relationship with our neighbors, so we don’t hear that. We don’t see that.”

Trump International has made changes to make the property more friendly to the public. For instance, public access is now available through the course to the beach, and the development plays host to community events for local golfers, charities and ladies groups, Hedberg said.

“I think the course speaks for itself,” Hedberg said. “It is what people come here for, primarily because of its incredible beauty. It’s important for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to get their fair share of the tourism.

“I lived in Aberdeen before the course opened and there’s a big difference in the level of visitors around Aberdeen because of us.”

Logan Huff and Kynan Marlin are journalism students at Arizona State University.  This story was written as part of an Arizona State University Study Abroad program exploring the role of golf in Scotland.

Related Articles

Despite vastly different climates, golf courses have same desire for sustainability