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Reports on disc golf and the environment

Disc golf's impact on the environment has been studied by a number of researchers, both in and out of the disc golf community. The picture these reports draw of disc golf's impact on the environment is not a pretty one.

We at Save McLaren Park applaud any activity that gets people outdoors, builds community, or brings visitors to our great City. However, disc golf courses cause well-known damaging effects to the environment including greatly increased erosion, soil compaction, serious trampling of undergrowth, as well as constant stripping of leaves and branches by hard plastic discs flying at highway speeds.

Arborist's report on the Golden Gate Park disc golf course

Cuts caused by discs travelling up to 75mph
Tree damage from flying discs at the Golden
Gate Park course is worst around baskets
due to wide dispersion of tossed discs.
SMP photo by Ken McGary



When the Golden Gate Park disc golf course was agreed upon in 2003, SF Department of Recreation and Parks commissioned an arborist's review of the impact of the course after 18 months of use. In September of 2005, the report was released. Among its findings:

  • Traffic along the paths has removed pre-existing groundcover, leaving bare ground.
  • "Some of the trees and shrubs in the area of the course have been damaged by the play of disc golf."
  • "On young Monterey pine trees, gouges to the bark from the disks may increase the susceptibility of the tree to red turpentine beetle... an important insect pest already present in Golden Gate Park."
  • "Over time, I expect that the course will create a more open, less densely vegetated space. Young trees and shrubs will be absent from the "fairways." The course will be comprised of mature trees with a high canopy, but without an intermediate layer of small trees."
A disc golf "basket" (or hole).
Groundcover damage at the Golden Gate Park course
is worst around baskets, due to wide dispersion of tossed discs.
SMP photo by Ken McGary

Disc golf scatter study

As anyone who has played with a frisbee knows, discs rarely go where you want them to go. How does this impact disc golf?

The wider the throw, the further the player has to walk. Narrow paths designed to protect groundcover don't work when the disc lands some distance to the left or right.

A 2006 report prepared by Steve West for the Boy Scouts documented disc scatter from throws and the tracks made by players retrieving the discs.

Player tracks for a 360 foot hole. The dark spots represent the basket and tee; the lines show where the players walked to retrieve their discs.

Scattershots - where tossed discs land.

Disc golf speed report

The discs used in disc golf are not the familiar, floppy plastic found in frisbees. Sport discs are made of hardened plastic, honed to a sharp edge, and carefully designed for streamlined aerodynamic qualities. They must be thrown at high velocity to reach the distances found on a typical disc golf course.  

The mass of a disc isn't much (typically 180g or 6 ounces) but travelling at highway speeds means that they become a potentially destructive projectile once they leave the thrower's hand.  

When discs hit trees at these high speeds, gouges in the tree bark occur regularly, putting some trees at risk to pest infestation, stripping trees of leaves and branches and killing saplings outright. See Arborist's Report, above.

It's instructive to remember Newton's First Law of Motion -- Force = Mass x Acceleration (F=ma). The mass isn't much but the acceleration is huge! See the pictures above for evidence of what this stored energy can do to a hard tree trunk, and imagine that the soft tissue of a living animal is the (certainly accidental) impact point instead. Thwack! Which, by the way, is the sound heard every few minutes on the typical disc golf course as the discs hit tree branches and other unintended targets.

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