Goats vs. sprays
May the best weed-killer win, say County Parks, Garden Association

       It's a contest in the tradition of John Henry.
       He was the “steel-drivin' man” of storybooks who had a legendary face-off to see who could hammer rail spikes faster - a man or a machine.
       In the case of El Paso County's Bear Creek Park, the contest that's about to begin has to do with the elimination of noxious weeds. The competition will pit goats against herbicidal sprays. But the question is not which one works faster; it's which one proves the more effective.
       The Bear Creek Garden Associ-ation is pushing for the goats. The association has been tending a 2½-acre organic garden at Bear Creek Park since 1986, and is concerned about spray chemicals wafting into members' garden plots.
        “We have pesticide-free gardens, and we want to keep them that way,” said Garden Association spokes-person Char Nymann.
       Pat Farrell, maintenance supervisor for El Paso County Parks, said he has nothing against goats, but pointed to figures from the four years when goats were used in Bear Creek Park (ending in 2003) that indicate they were roughly twice as expensive as spraying. The county's Environmental Services Department stated that grazing “was not cost-effective,” he said.
        He also defended the county herbicides, which are used twice a season, as “very environmentally friendly.”
        The competition, resulting from a county commissioners' suggestion, is an attempt at a “side-by-side comparison” of the two methods, Farrell said. It will take place in Bear Creek Park, south of Rio Grande Street and east of 21st Street.
        The two types of weeds being targeted are the common teasel and the Canada thistle. The state requires public entities to control such identified weeds because of their adverse effect on indigenous grasses, shrubs and trees as well as animal habitat, Farrell said.
       The plan, being formalized in a memorandum of agreement between County Parks and the association, will allot about 17 acres for goats to chow down on weeds and about the same number where spraying will be used. The goat-grazing area will be around the association's garden, while the spraying area will be south and east of that. A buffer area, at least 300 feet wide, will be established between the two areas.
       Mowing will be done about four times in both contest areas. According to Farrell, mowing helps “stress” a plant, leaving it more vulnerable to either spraying or grazing. Once weeds are under control, the next step is to “back-plant” more desirable species.
       Mowing and spraying are used for weed control in the county's other parks, Farrell said.
        A specially designated committee of five people (Farrell, plus two each from the association and the County Parks Board) is choosing from bids (following a bidding process that closed May 13) to hire a contractor who will provide the goats.
       The county is funding the cost of the goats, but only at the same rate per acre it pays for the spraying. Any costs beyond that must be picked up by the association, which has been fund-raising for that purpose.
        The Bear Creek Garden Association is a registered non-profit association which collects fees from its members and pays the county for water usage in the garden.
       Despite the county's assertions about spraying's effectiveness, Nymann expressed confidence that the weed-eating goats would prove the better choice. She looked ahead to a spray-free future “when [not 'if'] we prove the goats are successful.”
       Farrell said he expects the competition will last two years, so as to provide a reasonable amount of data for comparison purposes.
       One of the previous Bear Creek Park goats, named “Sarge,” has gained notoriety by having a book written about him. But is there a goat named John Henry?

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