Earth & Conservation

Trump Dissolves Environmental Oversight Group at His Scottish Golf Course

Environmentalists raised concerns after Trump's company shut down the course's environmental advisory group, with plans to expand construction at the site.

When President Donald Trump first set eyes on a property formerly known as the Menie Estate near Aberdeen, Scotland, he said, "I have never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic seaside landscape and the location makes it perfect for our development." Several years later, after the construction of the Trump International Golf Links Scotland (TIGLS), he said "what I've done is made the land incredible... It's a piece of land that's fully sculpted, it's beautiful, it's ready, and I can go anytime I want."

A collaboration between 25 U.K. conservation and research organizations holds a different view. In a State of Nature report, they refer to TIGLS as one of three "damaging developments" threatening sand dune habitats.

"Such developments often result in the loss of rare invertebrates, lichens and the rich orchid populations of wet dune slacks," the report said. "What wildlife does survive is often left marooned on dune 'islands' in a sea of development. Building work also interferes with the dynamics of dune systems."

Filmmaker Anthony Baxter believes the damage has already been done. In an opinion piece for The Guardian he wrote: "Trump claimed his Menie estate golf course would be 'environmentally perfect.' But, in fact, it destroyed the ability of the sand dunes to move and shift naturally, something that was highlighted by every credible environmental group in the land when his plans were first submitted."

Trump Dissolves Environmental Advisory Group

TIGLS could try to refute these concerns with data from the Menie Golf Links Environmental Advisory Group (MEMAG) -created as part of the 2008 agreement permitting construction of the course. But spokespersons for Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) both confirmed that TIGLS recently shut down the group.

Members of MEMAG had included representatives from the Aberdeenshire Council, the Belhelvie Community Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency as well as TIGLS.

As Rory Syme of Scottish Wildlife Trust informed Seeker, the group "was set up to monitor the environment at Trump International Links as a condition of planning. It was recently dissolved against the guidance from the local authority and the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon."

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Trump executive George Sorial explained in a statement: "Having successfully completed its scrutiny role for the construction of the championship golf course, MEMAG was dissolved. More than 95% of the site of special scientific interest remains untouched and the ecological diversity of the site remains intact."

Jamie Wyver indicated that RSPB could not support this claim, since "we've not been able to monitor the environmental impact of the golf course."

Even when MEMAG was in operation, minutes of their meetings via The Ferret show that TIGLS frequently failed to attend the events. Trump spokeswoman in Scotland Sarah Malone, for example, apologized for missing key meetings over a period of years. "Noting the need for (TIGLS) representation at MEMAG meetings," the group stopped meeting even before TIGLS dissolved it.

A Site of Special Scientific Interest

Part of what is at stake environmentally is one third of a site known as Foveran Links SSSI - the land's designation as a "Site of Special Scientific Interest," per Sorial's comment.

According to a geographical report prepared before construction of the course, "Seven species of endangered birds on the 'Red List,' (IUCN's Red List), including redshank, skylarks and lapwings, are threatened by this golf development. These birds depend on the rich dune ecosystem and the adjoining beach. Aberdeenshire Council is required by law to conserve biodiversity. Allowing this development to go ahead will reduce biodiversity in the council area."

The IUCN has additionally reported that a fish whose range includes waters off the site, the European flounder (Platichthys flesus), is suffering from chemical pollution particularly due to xenoestrogens. These compounds are commonly associated with pesticides used at golf courses. "Intersex individuals are caught in low, but constant amounts," the IUCN wrote of the fish.

A Scottish National Heritage review, prepared before the TIGLS development, mentioned that Foveran Links host a wide "range of migrant birds" as well as nests for terns.

In terms of valuable plant life, "a nationally scarce plant in Great Britain," the variegated horsetail, was recorded as being at the site, along with sweet vernal grass, red fescue, heath, bell heather, creeping willow, sand sedge and multiple other "plant communities reflecting the acid nature of the sand and the varying stability of the different dune types and associated land forms."

The long-term objectives for management then called for maintaining the key features of biological interest, ensuring the natural evolution of the site's dune system, and upholding the physical and visual integrity of the site.

The RSPB noted that the region merited protection because of its unique dune environment, which held promise for scientific research. Trump executive Sorial, fired back: "To date we are the only ones that have studied, preserved and actively managed that site, threatened by years of shooting birds, erosion and ongoing urban pressure. The dunes have now been preserved for generations to enjoy with 95% of the SSSI untouched. The RSPB should spend some time studying the facts and should actually visit the site before publishing such nonsense and fiction."

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Syme indicated to Seeker that "due to lack of information from Menie Links," specific current environmental data concerning TIGLS is not available.

Lessons to Learn

Sometimes golf courses can improve landscapes, Wyver said, depending on where they are and what they replace. If a golf course replaces heavily farmed land, for example, wildlife could benefit from added water features, tree plantings and low intensity grasslands. In the case of TIGLS, however, the course was built on existing habitat.

"I'm afraid it would be hard to find any obvious benefits stemming from TIGLS," Erik Jönsson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human Geography at Lund University, told Seeker. "While golf courses can be environmentally beneficial, for example, in introducing wetland elements when industrial-agricultural landscapes are transformed into golf courses, it's not like Aberdeenshire suffered from a lack of turf grass."

In recent days, Trump's company has confirmed plans to expand the golf course, despite vowing that "no new foreign deals" would happen while he is president. A spokesperson for the resort said that the expansion does not represent a new deal because the course was initially constructed in 2008.

Jönsson, who has studied the development for years, said that at this stage we can only learn two very important lessons. The first is that "planners and politicians must pay closer attention to the uncertainties inherent to developers' promises." In addition to reneging on MEMAG, TIGLS promised to heavily invest in the local community and to create jobs. "Eight years after the golf course's approval, both investment levels and the number of jobs created are far below what TIGLS estimated," he said. According to the New York Times, a $1.25 billion planned investment turned into, opponents said, $50 million and 6,000 jobs became less than 100.

The second lesson to learn, according to Jönsson, is that "breaches to planning consent must be acted upon, so as not to create a situation where the developer becomes too powerful."

Now that Trump is the 45th president of the United States, it is hard to imagine a situation where a developer could be any more powerful.

Photo: Donald Trump, and his granddaughter Kai visit Trump International Golf Links on June 25, 2016 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images WATCH: Breaking Down How Donald Trump Won the US Election