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Invasive Plants? Goats Can Fix That

Thu, 07/20/2023 - 11:27
“Their favorite foods are poison ivy, green briar, multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, which are the vines, and also Japanese knotweed,” Rusty Schmidt, a landscape ecologist with the Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis firm, told the town board.
Carissa Katz

Is your property overrun with invasive plants like honeysuckle and poison ivy? You may want to consider goats. That’s in part what Concerned Citizens of Montauk pitched to East Hampton Town for the roughly 40-acre Arthur Benson Preserve on Old Montauk Highway.

“Their favorite foods are poison ivy, green briar, multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, which are the vines, and also Japanese knotweed,” Rusty Schmidt, a landscape ecologist with the Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis firm told the town board on Tuesday. “They don’t really eat the native grasses.”

Goats have been employed to treat invasive species at Heckscher State Park in East Islip, on Staten Island, and at Riverside Park in Manhattan, and the town board looked favorably on a proposal from C.C.O.M. to use both goats and machines to rid the Benson Preserve of invasives while restoring habitat and vistas and increasing resilience against erosion.

“This project is something that can potentially be used as a template for other locations in which human hands have ruined a very fragile and ecologically sensitive property,” said Councilman David Lys, who called the narrow strip of land, south of Old Montauk Highway and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the real gateway to Montauk. The project is intended to restore the preserve, which the town acquired in 1999, to its condition of a century and more ago. The land includes several trails providing access to the beach.

Jeremy Samuelson, the planning director, described the proposed project as “the opportunity to embrace a public-and-private partnership that we think is responsible to not only the ecological resource but also the taxpayers of the town.”

Jaime LeDuc, C.C.O.M.’s director of environmental advocacy, and Mr. Schmidt explained the plan to the board. “The problem is that there is a high proportion of invasive species in there now,” Ms. LeDuc said. “Invasive species are bad because they can destroy biodiversity, species richness, and can severely disrupt ecosystems.”

Aerial drone photographs were taken in the spring of 2021, Mr. Schmidt said, and the property was divided by vegetation type — a combination of maritime shrubland, maritime grassland, and maritime dunes, with a high proportion of invasive species. Three distinct vegetation zones were identified: a 16-acre upper zone closest to Old Montauk Highway dominated by invasive species; a middle zone that is partially invasive and partially native — “the transition zone from good to bad,” he said — and a lower zone that is primarily native vegetation, where no action was deemed necessary. Invasive species, he said, “started up on the edge and are working down the slope toward the beach.”

The upper zone would be addressed first. There, an articulated backhoe would be used to pull out invasive species, which have shallow roots and are easily removed, he said. They are primarily border privet and Morrow’s honeysuckle, which he said can be 12 to 15 feet tall, blocking the ocean view and shading out everything underneath, “and they keep seeding themselves back in so they’re becoming more and more problematic.”

The steeper middle zone, about eight acres, predominantly comprises vines, which are not as easily removed by human efforts. About half of that zone would see mechanical removal, and the remainder fenced, where two to three goats per acre would be released.

Fresh water and a shelter will be provided, as goats do not like rain, Mr. Schmidt said.

Work would begin in the winter, he said, with the goats’ arrival slated for spring. In the summer of 2024, “what we’re hoping to do is go through and see if we need to pull out any extra plants, see if we need to add more goats, or take out goats.” Seeding would also begin in the summer of 2024, with supplemental planting, if needed, in 2025.

The main perennial of concern, he said, is mugwort, which the goats would eat, “but we’re really looking to manage the vines and shrubs first.” Beach access will not be impeded, he said.

“As we look at a restored landscape and we appreciate that it is more resilient and has higher values as habitat for both flora and fauna,” Mr. Samuelson said, “we see that the community benefits as well in terms of improved vistas and potentially even enhanced property values.”

The town would take the lead on the project, with Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis as technical adviser, Mr. Schmidt said. C.C.O.M. would manage the site. Local residents, he said, “are also a key factor in this, mainly because they are our primary source of funding.” One family has pledged $200,000 toward the $865,000 cost, he said. An applied-for $250,000 grant from Suffolk County would also help. “However, we are looking at other grant opportunities to decrease the private fund request.” C.C.O.M is not seeking funding from the town, only permission, he added.

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