It's about 8:30 a.m. when we arrive at the goat camp, located in extremely dense brush in the Tonto National Forest between Oxbow Estates and Payson.
The goats, 185 strong, have been held in a large portable pen this warm spring morning awaiting our arrival, and they are ravenous. Two Mexican vaqueros have their horses saddled and ready to go, while several dogs lounge on the ground.
Shortly after we arrive, the vaqueros mount up, as does Bill Barcus, a range technician for the Payson Ranger District.
The dogs immediately get up and position themselves on either side of the gate from which the goats will emerge.
With everyone ready to go, the gate is opened and the goats charge for the surrounding brush. Another day of forest thinning has begun.
The goats race through the area already thinned, headed for "greener pastures." The vaqueros and dogs work together to make sure none wander off.
Earlier that morning, bouncing along a crude Forest Service road en route to the camp, Barcus had explained how unlikely that would be.
"The sheepherders -- the vaqueros -- ride out with them on horseback and they have sheepdogs and bird dogs and bell goats (lead goats with bells around their necks)," Barcus said. "All the goats follow the bell goats until they get to where they want to go.
"Then they get off and tie up the horses and work them by hand. The thing I am impressed with is that the goats stay pretty close. They don't wander off."
The goats are part of a 2,300-acre forest thinning project south and southeast of Payson, just a small portion of the area that will eventually be thinned through the Payson Wildland Urban Interface Project.
Goats are more effective and less expensive than other options, according to John Brock, professor of ecological restoration at Arizona State University East. While some methods of clearing brush cost $450 an acre, goats only cost $173 an acre.
"It's a lot more cost-effective than the (other) choices we have," Brock said. "It's more environmentally friendly, and it benefits the forests and the goats."
The Payson Wildland Urban Interface Project also calls for extensive use of prescribed burning and mechanical clearing. The goats were chosen for this portion of the project for a couple of reasons.
"What they're trying to do is target all the browse species that are just a real fire carrier, and this country is pretty well infested with it," Barcus said. "See how this brush is choked like this?
"With the right conditions -- the right temperatures and (relative humidities) and winds -- this country could really blow and go, and being on this side of town, the southwest winds would carry it right towards Payson."
There's also always the chance that a prescribed burn could get away, and the smoke it produces can be a real pollutant. And then there's the simple fact that goats work cheap.
"It reduces the cost of the Forest Service having to put people out here," Barcus said.
"We have to construct lines and things like that to prepare for a fire before we even burn."
But like so many things these days, getting the goats into the forest meant cutting through a lot of red tape.
"This part out here is on the American Gulch cattle allotment," Barcus said. "We couldn't convert the allotment from cattle to goats, because it would have required years."
Fortunately, by issuing the original cattle permit holder a temporary permit for goats, some of process could be circumvented. But there were still hurdles to clear.
"We're supposed to be the administrators of public lands and we have a lot of guidelines we have to follow," Barcus said. "The whole process, to get this thing up and off the drawing board, took the better part of a year.
"We had to go through all kinds of public scoping and biological assessments and decision memos and archaeological clearances. There's some old mining sites that go back quite a few years, and there are some small Indian sites. They're not real significant, but there are some in here.
"We had to go through the archaeological people in Phoenix and then, in turn, through the state historical preservation organization and get their final blessings on it."
And before the goats could be released, a system for monitoring the vegetation had to be in place.
"Since it's a range allotment, we need to monitor what they're eating and not eating, what they're supposed to eat and not supposed to eat," Barcus said. "The goats seem to prefer brush, which is the browse, but they do eat grass as well.
"Since we don't want to lose the grasses, we decided we'd draw a guideline of 30 percent use. If they get to be eating 30 percent (of the grasses) in a certain area, and they haven't yet, we'll say, ‘Hey, you got to move.'"
To measure the goat's eating habits, four points were established using GPS instruments. Then 100-foot tapes were stretched out over the vegetation in three different directions from each point.
After photographs were taken to identify what kinds of vegetation are growing where, the goats were allowed to browse the area.
"We come back after the goats have gone through and re-read it for comparison," Barcus said. "That way you can tell how much and what they've eaten."
The goats seem to be doing what they're supposed to.
"From what I've seen so far, they're pretty much doing a good job on the brush, and they're really reducing the fuel load," he said.
Eventually, the herd will top out at 600 goats. That seems like a lot, but there's a lot of ground to cover.
"The entire project is 2,300 acres, and it's going to be a long time before they get through the entire area," Tonto National Forest fire ecologist Ed Paul said. "It will probably take them about a year, and by then it will be time to go back through it again."
Given the high price goat meat is fetching these days, that kind of job security is good for the goats. But it's also good for residents of the Rim country.
"If a big fire comes toward Payson, this is where it's coming from," Paul said.
Barcus put it this way:
"I was on the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, and I saw a country that got moonscaped that didn't have close to the fuel loading in this area."
Seven days a week, a herd of goats is hard at work protecting the Rim country from a similar tragedy.