By John Burton
SANDY HOOK – No kidding. They really are using goats to remove unwanted poison ivy and brush at Fort Hancock.
Goat herder Larry Cihanek has been employing his decidedly “green” method of natural nuisance removal for the past few weeks at the behest of the National Park Service (NPS).
“You really can’t get more environmentally friendly than this, I guess,” Cihanek said recently as he worked with 11 of his goats that he transported to Gateway National Recreational Area at Sandy Hook.
The animals, young kids of the Nubian variety, all born between February and April, will be joined by another dozen or so this week to help with the task at hand. They are expected to remain onsite through October or November.
Their work means park personnel will be able to avoid using harsh – and possibly dangerous – herbicides and will not have to be put at-risk operating equipment in tough-to-access spots.
The goats love to eat poison ivy, Cihanek said. “For them this is a smorgasbord.”
The NPS has been contracting with Cihanek for six years and has used his herd services at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, N.Y.
Fort Wadsworth, like Fort Hancock, is a former U.S, Army installation that has become part of the federal Gateway park system. There, Cihanek said, weeds were growing between bricks and stones on many of the aging structures at the historic location, allowing trees to root and damage the historic structures.
At Sandy Hook, Cihanek’s goats are being used on about 6 acres of Fort Hancock’s Mortar Battery. The battery once had large cannons that were moved in and out of concrete bunkers on metal rails. While the cannons are long gone, the rusted rails and concrete structures are now covered with earth and overgrown with trees, bushes, weeds, grass, and most troubling, large amounts of poison ivy.
Because Cihanek and his goats were successful at Fort Wadsworth, the park service and Peter McCarthy, NPS unit coordinator for Sandy Hook, decided to use the goats for a pilot program at Fort Hancock.
The Sandy Hook Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock, has paid for a large part of the goat service this year, McCarthy said.
The benefits of using goats include environmental and safety concerns, especially at Fort Hancock where workers will be spared from slogging through acres of poison ivy and other evasive species. It will also prevent further damage to historically and archeologically sensitive areas.
An unintended benefit has been that the goats have become something of an attraction at the parks where Cihanek has taken them, with some locations seeing as much as a 20 percent spike in attendance.
“I’m amazed at the amount of attention they’ve attracted,” McCarthy said.
Cihanek isn’t surprised. He realized a while ago that people like the goats.
“They’re animals that can relate to people like dogs and can live outside,” an appealing combination for potential owners, along with their ability to clear areas overrun with weeds and brush, he said.
During the late 1970s, when Cihanek owned and operated a Manhattan-based advertising agency, he purchased a small farm in Carmel, N.Y. The location had a lot of weeds and brush and people advised him to get some goats. As he began caring for the goats, he found it enjoyable. “It was my therapy, a little reality at the end of my day.”
Cihanek, who is 68 and retired in 2006, bought a 35-acre farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., with the intention of raising goats for milk and cheese. Instead, he started his grazing business and now has 65 goats.
“Frankly, I like goats better than most people,” he said. “Goats are what they are.” Some are friendly, others less so, but none are phonies. “That’s not always the way with people,” he said.
The goats are fenced in the areas they’re clearing at Fort Hancock, corralled with mildly electrified fences. They don’t need to be fed, and only require continuous fresh water, Cihanek said.
“If we’re as successful as it appears [the program] will be, we’ll expand it next year,” McCarthy said.