Citing environmental concerns, Pike’s landing golf course in Fairbanks shut down

A Fairbanks restaurant is in trouble with the state over a golf game that often sends balls into the Chena River. The driving range on the deck of Pike’s Landing has closed due to environmental concerns.

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The patrons of Pikes Landing can no longer try to hit golf balls across the Chena River. Pikes challenges customers to buy a ball and drive it across the water, but many end up in the river, and Department of Environmental Conservation compliance officer Tiffany Larson said that’s illegal.

”We’re determining what level of violation it is because it affects water violations or solid waste violations,” Larson said. “We’re trying to ascertain exactly what’s the composition of a golf ball and what does it constitute.”

Larson said the issue was never previously raised and the state only began looking into it after a complaint was filed earlier this month by Anchorage environmental activist Rick Steiner.  Steiner said he was on his way home following a float trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park, when he stopped in Fairbanks.

”And came thorugh Pike’s and saw these people hitting golf balls right into the river and couldn’t believe it,” Steiner said.

Steiner, a biologist and former University of Alaska marine conservation professor, said golf balls are slightly negatively buoyant in fresh water, meaning they likely carry downstream to the Tanana and Yukon Rivers and eventually the Bering Sea, where denser ocean water, floats them to the surface and the golf balls can be eaten by wildlife.

”I have, in my work in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, found hundreds of dead albatross chocked full of plastic items and a lot of these dead albatross had golf balls in them,” Steiner said. “They’ve also showed up in dead whale carcasses on beaches and such like that.”

Steiner admits there’s no evidence of golf balls from Pikes ending up in the ocean or wildlife, but the restaurant’s driving range has likely sent thousands into the Chena River. Pikes owner, former state legislator, Jay Ramras said the range dates back to before he bought the restaurant and lodge in 1999, and that he’s being unfairly singled out among local golf venues.

“They all have state waterways that run through their property and all have ball hazards,” Ramras said. “We serve 1,600 golfers, roughly, per summer. I’m quite certain that there are more golfers on the other three golf courses in Fairbanks, you know, who are hitting into water hazards that are also state waterways everyday of summer.”

Ramras cites numerous environmentally beneficial projects at Pikes, including solar energy, composting and a hydroponic greenhouse, as well as river protection efforts with various agencies and groups. Ramras said he immediately closed down the golf venue after talking to the D.E.C., but has yet to receive an official compliance letter.

”Give me a letter and tell me what I did wrong and I will go about correcting it right away,” Ramras said. “But meanwhile I have a damaged small business guy who wants to do the right thing who’s good name and good stewardship of the river has been swamped by a curious media and a non-responsive state agency.”

A study found a standard plastic golf ball could take up to a thousand years to naturally degrade, releasing toxins as it does. Specific to Pikes, the DEC’s Larson said more environmentally friendly options are being considered.

“Such as biodegradable golf balls, some sort of reclamation effort for catching all of the golf balls,” Larson said.

Larson expects the Pikes golf issue to be resolved this summer, adding that the DEC is likely to issue a statement on the broader concern. Steiner has also asked the agency to look into the annual Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic in Nome.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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