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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

An invasive species goating, goating, gone

Goats at Heckscher State Park in East Islip

Goats at Heckscher State Park in East Islip on Sept. 22, 2019. They eat grass to protect the dunes and prevent overgrowth. Photo Credit: Robert Schutzenbach

In the eastern portion of Heckscher State Park, there is a five-acre area of wetland dominated by an invasive, nonnative plant known casually as Chinese silvergrass and formally as Miscanthus sinensis

To the untrained eye (and mine are fantastically ignorant) the area does not look unusual, and the Chinese silvergrass does not look out of place. Imported from Eastern Asia in the late 1800s for ornamental purposes, the plant is often called elephant or zebra grass and is a beloved feature in many yards. 

The 43 goats grazing on the Chinese silvergrass, on the other hand, do make an impression once you notice them.

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around Heckscher with a couple of friends when we ambled up to the cottages recently built on the water. Our plan was to poke around, look up the rental pricing on our smartphones and exclaim, “They’re crazy if they think I’m paying that!” and stomp off. 

That’s when we spied the goats. They were quiet, still in the late-morning warmth, and blended into the background. It was like an optical trick where the longer you looked, the more goats you see. I’ve walked there frequently and never noticed a single one. 

They are there to work, according to Yuriy Litvinenko, the state parks’ regional biologist for Long Island. Their job is to eat Chinese silvergrass. They are paid with all the Chinese silvergrass they can eat. Plus their owner, Green Goats of Rhinebeck, gets $14,000 in goat-rental fees for the approximately 5-month-long season.

Litvinenko said the size of the silvergrass-dominated area and the sensitivity of the environment and high winds make controlling the plant with herbicides a poor idea, and state parks use such chemicals as sparingly as possible. Digging up the silvergrass would leave a barren expanse dotted with gaping holes, because the silvergrass is pretty much all there is in the area.

So Heckscher officials tried goats for a month or two last year and saw some success, and brought them back this year and are even happier with the results. Litvinenko said he’s using a drone to monitor the results, and the goats appear to be doing their job well. 

The goat solution is not entirely new, of course. Green Goats has herds in New York City and across the state eating what needs eating. But there is something heartening about running across such a simple, harmless and even cuddly solution being applied to an environmental problem on Long Island.

We are going to have a lot to answer for here, environmentally, when our kids and grandkids ask. The water we use for drinking and growing crops comes from a single-source aquifer we are depleting far faster than it can recharge, to water lawns and golf courses. We are polluting that aquifer and our waterways with fertilizer and pesticides applied to useless grass, and with nitrogen leaking from faulty cesspools. Every solution is fought by many residents whose priorities are emerald-green lawns and saving a few bucks. The roads crawl with huge vehicles, one driver and five empty seats, going nowhere slowly. We roll endless bins of trash out to the curb every week, trying not to worry about where it will be taken and what it is doing to the Earth.

Amid all this, the goats at Heckscher are a small, welcome reminder that simple and smart solutions to some of our problems are possible, if we seek and embrace them. Focusing on their cuteness can help us forget that, in fact, we mostly aren’t seeking and embracing such solutions at all.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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