Contrary to their name, the U.S. Rake Force doesn’t often use rakes when it clears excess fuel out of overgrown forests to reduce the threat of wildfire.
Instead, they deploy goats.
The 26-goat herd often goes in as the “first strike,” eating its way through excess biomass on the forest floor so veteran and civilian volunteers can follow behind and do whatever trimming and clearing work is necessary to clear dangerous debris and return the forest to peak health.
It’s this process of “raking the forest” that gives the U.S. Rake Force, founded several years ago by Toledo residents Jake Dailey and Brian Dennis, its name.
“We hadn't called ourselves ‘Rake Force’ until the former president was standing in a burnt forest in Northern California, and he said, ‘rake the forests,’ and we were like ‘What the heck did he just say?’” Dailey recalled.
Many were baffled by the former president’s comment in 2018 claiming Finland “rakes” its forest floors to prevent wildfire, but Dailey and Dennis understood what forest management processes he was referring to.
“We know what he meant. And this is what he meant, right? What we're doing is what he meant,” Dailey said.
The name was a satirical joke for the veteran-owned startup company, but it carried the weight of service its employees and volunteers were undertaking in the service of their neighbors.
“It’s not defense in terms of weaponry, right? We’re not going to go kill someone. But it’s defending our homeland, (which) is real service,” said Dailey, adding, “Our neighbors’ properties are safer because we’re doing this. Their lives are safer. It’s defense. This is community service.”
Rake Force’s goal is to leave a “national park-like setting” in the forest areas they work on, maintaining a healthy balance between removing the excess material that creates a fire risk and not taking too much.
“Right now, the excess fuel load is a danger. And the forest will shed again … We’re not going to hurt the forest by protecting it,” Dailey said.
The goats could potentially damage trees and strip too much from the forest if they were penned into a small area, but Rake Force’s herd is free-range and moves frequently, preventing them from doing damage to the forest’s biodiversity.
The Rake Force doesn’t do prescribed burns or slash piles to reduce the excess fuel on the forest floor. Instead, they haul out the debris and bring it to metal kilns, where it's burned down into biochar, a carbon-rich charcoal that serves as an excellent fertilizer for damaged soil.
The process to make biochar is laborious and time-consuming, involving burning the forest debris in kilns without oxygen, but it creates fewer pollutants than a standard slash-pile and the end product has a wide range of ecological benefits, including soil remediation and water filtration.
“We are burning less emissions than a slash pile, and we've got this carbon to apply to soils where it belongs,” Dailey said.
Dailey and Dennis first began working together roughly six years ago, when Dailey, an Iraq war veteran, started homesteading in Toledo and needed help pulling weeds in his garden. Dennis, the owner of Camp Singing Wind who was working to restore the overgrown property, brought five people to help with Dailey’s yard.
“He told me that he owned (Camp Singing Wind) and I’d heard about this summer camp they were revitalizing so I wanted to come check it out,” Dailey said. “We became best friends real quick.”
Camp Singing Wind is 184 wooded acres located 3 miles outside of Toledo with Salmon Creek running through it that hosts day campers through the summer.
Dennis acquired the first seven goats of his herd from a friend several years ago, and was given the rest of the 26-goat herd soon after.
By the time Dennis and Dailey came together, Dennis and the goats had been working for several years to restore the forests on the property and Dailey quickly joined him in that work.
“It became my PTSD therapy,” said Dailey, who served as a combat medic in Iraq and recalled having to treat a friend who died by suicide.
“And then you have to come back and try to be normal. And that story is like, anyone could repeat that story. That happened to them, too. So this has been my therapy,” he said.
Dennis is a civilian, but he recognized the trauma Dailey had gone through and saw how mentally and emotionally beneficial tending the forest could be for those who had gone through trauma.
“I started to see a thing that needed to be tapped, which was people’s collective trauma,” said Dennis.
The newly-formed Rake Force became more impactful to the veteran volunteers than Dennis and Dailey anticipated when COVID-19 hit.
As an outdoor activity, Rake Force deployments continued through the pandemic and provided those veterans opportunities for safe social interaction with their peers.
“I didn’t know how impactful that was going to be for a lot of those people,” Dennis said.
“And then every time they would come out, they would be like, ‘Tell us when this is happening again, this was so helpful for me,’” Dailey added.
Rake Force’s goal is to ultimately hire veterans to work with the goat herds and do forest restoration work.
“So their therapy is also their livelihood,” Dailey said. “This is where we’re killing … multiple birds with just this one task: we’re preventing forest fires, we're restoring the ecology of the forest, we’re restoring people, we’re providing living wages, right? That's our real intent.”
As a social purpose corporation, Rake Force operates similarly to a nonprofit in that it’s “mission first, profit second,” but it is still classified as a for-profit business and takes contracted jobs doing forest restoration work and other conservation projects such as landslide remediation.
For more information on Rake Force and its upcoming work, visit https://www.facebook.com/USRakeForce.