Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
UDOT is using goats rather than chemicals to control noxious weeds and non-native trees in the Legacy Nature Preserve.

NORTH SALT LAKE — What do transportation engineers and goats have in common?

While that association might invite several punch lines, it also could lead to a more natural way of keeping the 2,100-acre Legacy Nature Preserve free of noxious weeds and non-native trees.

Utah Department of Transportation officials and their environmental consultants share a common interest with a herd of 750 goats — both would like to remove a plethora of unwanted plants including bindweed and the ubiquitous dyer's woad from the nature preserve, established in part to reduce the environmental impact of the planned Legacy Parkway.

UDOT could just as easily unleash chemicals on the 10-mile-long stretch of land between the Legacy's planned route and the Great Salt Lake. That might even be cheaper.

"This is about a choice we have," said John Thomas, UDOT's Legacy Parkway project manager. "Certainly, one of those choices is to douse the area with chemicals to control these weeds — or use the organic method where the goats come in, eat the weeds and fertilize along the way, getting the land ready for the native vegetation that will be planted . . .

"Our scientists are already saying this is great. This is an amazing opportunity."

Thursday, UDOT representatives and local goat farmer Jason Garn brought the media to the southern end of the Legacy Nature Preserve, where Garn's 750 goats were busy clearing a one-acre swath of all noxious plants.

Mike Perkins, an environmental consultant on the project, said there is one very convenient thing about goats, compared to other grazing animals like cattle — their "guts" are much tougher and actually destroy the seeds the goats digest rather than keeping the seeds intact and permitting them to eventually germinate. "It makes sense," Perkins said of the goat experiment. "We're developing a comprehensive management plan, but this is kind of a start. This would be considered an adaptive management technique. . . . We might change as we go, depending on what's effective and what's not."

The initial one-acre experiment could be expanded to include three times as many goats, if UDOT and its environmental partners decide they want to continue pursuing the natural method of clearing the land of non-native plant species.

That would be fine with Garn, who said he can rent more goats outside the area if needed. He said he charges an average of about $2 per goat per day — about $1,500 a day for the current Legacy job — depending on the labor intensity (like how far he has to haul water) of the job.

Garn said it will take his herd of 750 goats only about 10 days to clear the one-acre parcel of the preserve, west of Redwood Road near Center Street, where they are now penned in by an electric fence. It would take as many as 2,000 goats working non-stop to control weeds in the entire 2,100-acre preserve, he said.

"A good project like this, a big one, is what we always hope for, definitely," said Garn, who is more accustomed to smaller jobs in which property owners may want an acre or two cleared.

Perkins said goats are particularly suited for the task because they, like the non-native plants UDOT wants to destroy, originated in Eurasia and are therefore adapted to that specific diet.

The Legacy Nature Preserve Collaborative Design Team — which includes UDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, Friends of Great Salt Lake, The Nature Conservancy of Utah, Great Salt Lakekeeper, Utah Society for Environmental Education, Bear River Bird Refuge and other groups — will hold a public open house Tuesday to receive input on "how we can develop a vision for the . . . Legacy Nature Preserve mitigation for the benefit of wildlife protection and future generations of Utahns."

The invitation for the open house goes on to remind potential participants that the meeting ". . . is not about highway alternatives — it's about the land."

The open house will be held at the Day-Riverside Library, 1575 W. 1000 North, in Salt Lake City. The goats and their potential contribution may well be part of the discussion.