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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nanny Goat Fire Control

Air Date: Week of

In the hills around Oakland, California some nanny goats are being herded to do their job: eat the scrub grass down to keep future fires from spreading. Fritz Faerber reports on the pros and cons of this technique which is not free from criticism.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. As southern California recovers from its latest round of battles with wildfires, we note that this year marks the fifth anniversary of the devastating fires in the hills of Oakland. That blaze raged for 3 days, killing 25 people and destroying nearly 3,000 homes. Since then local government agencies have worked together to prevent a repeat of this disaster. One solution is to clear the excess vegetation that October's hot, dry winds turn into tinder. Workers are creating firebreaks in a variety of ways, including one that, as Fritz Faerber explains, is just a bit unorthodox.

(Bells. Hanneken: Nanny goat! Come on! Yeah, come on, big time!" A goat bleats. "Nanny, come on! Come on, come on! Come on!")

FAERBER: Bob Hanneken, a 57-year-old rancher. Tends his herd of 900 4-legged firefighters day and night in the Oakland hills. The goats are just finishing a city-owned parcel of hilly land.

HANNEKEN: Before wintertime, we'll probably have cleared a couple hundred acres out. I say cleared, I really say controlled because that's what we're trying to do. We're not trying to clear the land, we're trying to control the foliage.

FAERBER: After about 10 weeks of grazing the goats have devoured most everything on this 80-acre plot, leaving dried yellow grass covering much of the hillside. A nearby field is full of waist-high brush. In the midday heat, goats rest in a small,shady grove of trees where they've stripped the lower branches clean. This is Bob Hanneken's first year in business clearing brush. He started using goats 20 years ago to control vegetation on his own ranch in the Ozarks.

HANNEKEN: You know, you could go over the land with a tractor and trim it down or your brush and grass was about the right balance, and next year here it came back. And Ifound out that I wore one machine out after another and I got into goats and goats is a better way. Besides that, goats have babies and produce more; tractors don't.

FAERBER: Mr. Hanneken's biggest employer is the city of Oakland, which started using goats after the 1991 fire and now uses them on about one sixth of the 2,000 acres where the city creates firebreaks. The local parks district, University of California, Berkeley, and the utility district all use goats in their coordinated effort to prevent fires. Martin Matarasi, park land resources supervisor for the city, says goats often do a better job than their 2-legged coworkers.

MATARASI: It's a superior treatment than you can do with people. Because when you're weeding an area, you -- unless you rake up everything you still have -- the biomass is still there, whereas the goats sort of modify it as it passes through their digestive system and it comes out in a nice little round package, which isn't fuel any more.

FAERBER: Mr. Matarasi says goats are best on land too rocky for mowers, or areas where workers won't go for fear of thorns and poison oak. He adds that hand-clearing land can cost up to 5 times what it costs to use goats. But some local environmentalists argue grazing can have high ecological costs. Laurel Collins, a geomorphologist, studied the effects of fire and subsequent fuel control for the East Bay Regional Parks District.

(Footfalls through brush)

FAERBER: Walking through brush along the boundary of the '91 fire, Ms. Collins compares areas grazed by goats and those left alone.

COLLINS: Even as you look you can start seeing a lot of these thistle species in here that you don't see in the other section.

FAERBER: Laurel Collins says goats' hooves churn soil, causing erosion and attracting non-native weeds.

COLLINS: We're standing in the grazed section now, and you can see that there is a virtual forest of thistles here that are about 3 feet in height. And these species weren't here before the goats grazed in this section about two years ago or so.

FAERBER: Is there any chance the native plants can come back with this kind of established growth?

COLLINS: The native plants are coming back to some extent, but their growth has been slowed by the grazing of the goats.

FAERBER: She says hand crews and prescribed burns are less damaging and would be a better option, especially on steep slopes prone to erosion. Some environmentalists like Ms. Collins are critical of the fuel breaks in general, but with the memory of 1991's uncontrolled fire still fresh, fuel control takes precedence over the environment. Carol Rice, a fire consultant who helped plan the inter-agency fuel control program, acknowledges that vegetation control can be harmful. But she says careful use of goods can reduce environmental degradation.

RICE: Keep in mind first that a tool is like a hammer. You can break a window with it or you can build a building. And so with any of these tools there are ways to do it better than others. And one of the ways to minimize the environmental impacts of goats is to move them quickly through a site. You may put lots of numbers on them, but if they don't stay there that long, that tends to minimize the impact of it.

FAERBER: Officials in charge of maintaining the miles of firebreak that separate public and private property throughout the densely populated hills say they're careful to only use goats where appropriate and in a responsible manner. And while goats have shouldered a growing portion of fire prevention over the last few years, officials say they plan to vary the ways that they clear vegetation to better simulate natural processes. For Living on Earth, I'm Fritz Faerber.



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