August 22, 2021 | Sawyer D’Argonne | Daily Summit
Wildfire risk mitigation is a frequent topic of conversation in Summit County.
County and U.S. Forest Service officials are constantly looking to the next hazardous fuels reduction project in hopes of creating effective firebreaks along the wildland-urban interface. Community members take time each summer to clear vegetation from their properties to create defensible space and protect their homes. And others are simply handing land management over to the goats.
Last week, a herd of about 200 goats was hauled above Angler Mountain Road in Silverthorne to graze on brush and weeds, an effort experts say helps to reduce wildfire risks in the area while contributing to the overall health of the landscape.
“We use the goats in a way that we’re getting rid of noxious weeds. We’re helping with erosion control, fire mitigation, watershed work. There’s a lot of different benefits to the goats grazing here,” said Goat Green intern Jessica Teresi, who added that the business was hired by the Oxbow Ranch to perform the work. “Not only do they clean things up, but they can also heal the land and pour nutrients they’re recycling back into the ground.”
Goat Green founder Lani Malmberg has been herding goats for more than 25 years. She grew up in the Sandhills region of Nebraska on a cattle ranch, which later moved its operations to Wyoming. After a mid-career shift, she returned to school in Grand Junction, where she studied environmental restoration, botany, and biology. She later earned her masters in weed science from Colorado State University.
She got the idea for her business during her time at CSU while working on a research project in a riparian area that used sheep grazing to manage the land in lieu of herbicides. A chance encounter with a woman who recently purchased a herd of cashmere goats helped all the pieces fall into place.
“In my younger days, never did I dream I would be a goat herder,” Malmberg said. “… I read in the literature how well goats eat weeds. I had read about that, but I’d never really seen a goat in my life. But I do know how to handle animals growing up on a ranch. … When I helped with that sheep-grazing project, I thought to myself that somebody ought to start a business where they took the animal that eats whatever weeds were a problem because that’s what they like to eat. When I saw those cashmere goats, I knew that was the tool that would make that idea work.”
In 1996, Malmberg purchased her first 100 goats. Today, the business has a herd of about 1,500, which travels around 15 Western states doing land-management work on government and private contracts. She said the business is based “under her hat,” but Goat Green does keep a base camp property near Fort Collins.
Teresi said that all of the goats in Silverthorne were moms and babies born earlier this year. Goat Green goats aren’t sold for slaughter, meaning they live their entire lives traveling around the country grazing. Malmberg said the newest babies represent the 27th generation she’s raised since starting her business.
“The babies are trained up from their mamas, and they learn how to go on the job,” Teresi said. “They’re working just as hard as the moms do. Everything happens pretty naturally.”
Once on the land, they’ve been hired to work, Goat Green sets up temporary electric fences to keep the animals grazing and trampling over a specific piece of land, moving the fences intermittently so the goats can move on to new sections as necessary. Malmberg said the goats are used for brush mitigation, oil field reclamation, noxious weed removal, controlled reseeding, and more.
The company uses goats because they naturally have a different diet than horses and cattle, choosing to snack on brush and weeds as opposed to grass. Goats are also able to graze on steep inclines that other animals can’t reach. In addition to gnawing away at bushes and weeds on the ground, they stand on their hind legs to eat the vegetation from lower tree branches, which removes ladder fuels and further helps wildfire mitigation efforts.
Otherwise, Malmberg said the goats’ presence on the land naturally helps to make it healthier, with hundreds or thousands of hooves stomping across the area aerating and stabilizing the soil and recycling waste material back into the land — all without the chemicals, emissions, and man-hours that often go into land management work.
“The health and the resilience are built starting with the microbes underground, and it comes up above ground through the plants, through the wildlife, through the insects, through the birds, and through the people,” Malmberg said. “The resilience is then in stable communities; it just goes all the way through. Everything builds on each other, but every single thing is functioning. The people … are actually taking care of the land in a different way, and it’s a circle of taking care of each other and protecting each other. This land in the Silverthorne valley is protecting people, and we need to protect the land.”
Malmberg noted that projects like the one in Silverthorne also help to reconnect community members with nature by getting to drive up and see the goats in action.
“People have been disconnected from the land for three generations now, I say,” Malmberg said. “So the ability to reconnect and to see a herd of animals right in your neighborhood is a gift. People don’t see big herds of animals anywhere — not where they can drive up, look at them and watch us work a border collie to move them around.”
Malmberg also recently started the Goatapelli Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training individuals to work their own herds, especially those who didn’t have the opportunity to grow up on a ranch or a farm. Interns take part in a two-year boot camp where they learn the ins and outs of the craft, which they can then take with them on their next venture.
Teresi recently started with the program in hopes of bringing her new expertise to a cattle ranch in California in the future.
“It’s a great learning experience,” Teresi said. “It’s something that’s so much fun, and Lani is a wealth of information. … (The goats are) all low maintenance. They just work, and they love to work. They’re just living the life.”