Sustainable Lawmowers

Tuesday December 14, 2010

As urban boundaries continue to creep into open space, fuel management is becoming a term homeowners, not just fire personnel, are having to understand and implement. In essence, fuel management is maintaining a landscape to reduce its fire carrying capacity. In practice, this is commonly accomplished with controlled burns or with hand crews. As controlled burns often don't have much application for the individual property owner, hand crews seem to be the best option. This generally consists of string line trimming tall grass, thinning shrubs and wooded areas, lifting tree and shrub skirts, removing dead and dying wood, and any other maintenance that lessens a fire's potential to spread into developed areas.

Fuel management by hand crews is strenuous, dangerous, and messy business. Often times, crews find themselves clearing thickets of poison oak, in steep terrain, and covered with ticks. Their primary tools are string line trimmers and chainsaws. Used in tight spaces, this results in many nasty injuries. Additionally, their go-to tools are heavy, two-stroke polluters. And to make matters even worse, numerous large and devastating wildland fires (last season's Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara that burned over 8,500 acres and torched 80 homes is a recent example) are inadvertently caused by the errant sparks flying when gas-powered tools strike rocks.

And as the demand for fuel management increases, so to do available alternatives to hand crews. One such example worthy of attention is currently being used in The Sea Ranch. There, a clever method has been used successfully for about ten years without injury, offensive noise, unnecessary pollution, or accidental fire. This is accomplished with about six hundred sheep and goat, lovingly dubbed as "the lawnmowers" by The Sea Ranch residents, that graze and maintain over 400 acres of varied terrain.

When compared to hand crews, grazing is a much more sustainable option. The sheep and goats are incredible workers requiring only small amounts of supplemental feed, water, and protection from predators. In return, they work diligently and thoroughly for basically 24 hours a day, trim the grass, limb up the woody bushes and trees, and clear areas hand crews would loathe to enter. And rather than running a chipper or hauling off the vegetative "waste", the sheep and goats repackage and deposit their "waste" right back into the system for quick recycling.

In addition to their effectiveness, the cost of fuel management is strikingly more affordable. In The Sea Ranch, the cost of sheep and goats per acre is $248 or $0.42 per day. By contrast, a hand crew performing the same work is $1,400. Granted this example is for a large operation, but smaller-sized herds in more urban areas are generally less expensive per acre.

According to Charlotte Lewis of Living Systems Land Management, a herd management company based in the Bay Area, the cost of grazing can range from $50/acre to several thousand per acre. The cost is dependent on a variety of variables including total acreage grazed, type of vegetation, density of vegetation, terrain, time of year, availability of water, planning and management requirements, and habitat concerns. Often times homeowners and organizations will collectively contract with the management company to help reduce their cost.

In rare cases, according the Lewis, grazing can actually become a profitable affair for the client. This scenario involves purchasing herds, allowing the herd to grow in numbers, then selling lambs to market.

But make no mistake, there is certainly a time and place where hand crews are not only more effective, but may be the only option. As such, they can not be discounted as a tool when looking at fuel management.  So, if you are in need of some brush clearing, consider grazing in addition to traditional hand crews-because the sheep and goats are always hungry for your business.  And if you are to consider grazing as an option, be sure you reference the Grazing Standards provided by Living System Land Management in an effort to educate potential clients.

For grazing providers in your area, go to the Business Directory, type in your zip code, then select "Fuel Management".

For some related humor on the subject, don't miss Steven Colbert's satire on goats and landscaping.  Those offended by "potty humor" need not watch!


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