What goes around comes around. The Forest Service seems to have made an amazing discovery -- goats eat the thick brush of chaparral and reduce the danger of fires reaching the tops of the pine trees. Not only that, they leave the grass for the cattle and make room for more to grow; their hooves "rototill" the soil and they fertilize the land as they go.
What a deal -- 98 years after the government banned goats from the newly formed Tonto National Forest, they are paying Navajo ranchers $173 an acre to range their goats in the Prescott area, hoping to reduce fire danger and rejuvenate the land. Compare that fee with the $500 an acre it costs the Forest Service to mechanically clear the brush.
It was 1896 when John Holder and his family brought a herd of 3,000 Angora goats to Arizona and homesteaded along the East Verde River. He had not intended to be a goat rancher, but had come from Texas to Riodoso, N.M. to be a cattle rancher. It was a lawless time and in those days, cattle ranchers killed to possess range land. John Holder found his life was threatened, and when a local group of ranchers suggested he leave, he took them up on it. He exchanged his cattle for a herd of goats, and came to the East Verde. Here, the goats thrived on the mesquite, scrub oak, mountain mahogany and manzanita that covered the hills. The herd prospered, growing to over 5,000 in number. Their hair, called mohair, was sent to market in Globe.
It was the loss of family members to disease and a heavy snow in the winter of 1901-02 killing off many from the herd that prompted the Holders to move to Gisela, where there was a warmer climate. There, Holder continued his practice of hiring Apache Indians as herders, who kept the goats together in small bunches during the day and brought them back to the corrals at night.
The Holders were not the only ones running goats from Gisela. The Neals and Booths also had herds, as did Ira Hickcox along Rye Creek above the H-Bar Ranch. Ranchers with the names of Crabtree, Ward and Gilliland had goats all over the Mazatzals.
Ranger Fred Croxen reported that "J.H. Fuller had goats and ran them in the vicinity of the Diamond Gap Rim and had a camp ... on Lion Creek. He also ran those goats on top of the Rim at what is locally known as ‘The Great Corral' at the head of Cracker Box Canyon west of General Springs."
The Holders had barely settled into Gisela when, in 1903, the new forest administrators began to close in on ranchers who used public lands without paying for the privilege. In that year they took a census of all goats and cattle ranging on public lands, and in 1904, began charging 10 cents for a range cow. The next year, 1905, the fee was raised to a dollar a cow.
There was not a charge for goats, but instead, the settlers running the goats, along with those with herds of sheep, were given a deadline that year to be off the range. This also was encouraged by the Salt River Project, which was beginning to claim all the Rim country as drainage for the desert valley. With the construction of Roosevelt Dam it was thought necessary that cattle be reduced on the fragile range land, while sheep and goats were to be removed from the watershed altogether.
The disastrous practice of quelling range fires and allowing the forest to grow unchecked also began about this time.
The overgrazing caused by cattle during the 1880s and '90s had so damaged the land that erosion was rampant and the scrub growth we see today began to spring up where once tall grass had held sway. The government's approach to restoring the land only exacerbated the problem.
For the Holders, the only move they could make was to take their goats to New Mexico.
It is hard to change bureaucratic policies, but in recent years the government has begun to recognize the value of grazing goats. Studies in the 1970s discovered the advantage of goats on the range, and after the Diamond Rim burned near Payson an experiment was conducted in 1980: 240 Angora goats were rented by the Forest Service to browse the burned over area. They could be seen from the Houston Mesa, eating everything in sight. Unfortunately they also ate the newly planted grass. After two seasons it was determined that even goats could over-graze an area, and they were moved off the Diamond Rim to another area that needed improving.
The "Payson Goat Study" hit the news in the Los Angeles Times, and ranchers around the country began inquiring about goats.
More goats are being used to control the brush in chaparral country. This in turn increases the grass and groundwater. The goat prefers these shrubs and their browsing is not only cheap but environmentally helpful.
The Rim country was the site of a goat grazing experiment in 1984. The Conways brought in 600 Spanish goats to their Tonto Basin ranch. the goats kept the land clear of chaparral, and the Conways sold the meat for a better price than they had been able to sell beef -- 63 pounds of red meat per acre; it was 6.5 with cows.