AN ALTERNATIVE TO TRADITIONAL LAND CLEARING
AND HABITAT RESTORATION
Land clearing is often used to remove saplings, trees, brush and unwanted vegetation that is too big for a bushhog to handle. While there is often some dirt "sculpting" that can only be accomplished with dirt moving equipment, cleaning out woody debris can be handled with a variety of methods. Land clearing methods have typically been limited to using bulldozers, backhoes and other "earth moving" equipment to clear sites. Woodland grinders have become a recent alternative to remove woody debris and trees while leaving little impact on the soils and the remaining vegetation without leaving piles of debris to be burned.
While real estate developers often want to clean up a site to leave it aesthetically pleasing, wildlife managers are now using equipment to clear understories and midstories and change unproductive ground to productive wildlife habitat and to add additional acreages to their hunting land. Using traditional clearing equipment, the surface layer of soil is disturbed which often changes the vegetation structure to tall weedy undesirable plants. Erosion is often an issue and piles of debris need to be burned (often several times) to finish cleaning the site. Using a grinder, no piles are created, instead all material is ground into mulch on-site. The mulch helps prevent erosion on the site and because little soil disturbance is created, little erosion problems are created. This lack of soil disturbance also allows grasses like broomstraw, etc to grow on the site without competition from taller weeds. The lack of ground disturbance keeps from disrupting your controlled burning regime as well.
In the real estate realm, having a lot choked up
with sapling pine, hardwood and shrubs is not conducive to getting the highest
dollar amount on the sale of that lot. Lots that are still wooded but open
underneath and visible throughout usually get the best dollar value when sold.
Having a lot that is pretty and looks undisturbed makes a buyer feel like they
are getting a pristine, aesthetically pleasing lot to build on. In addition,
clearing trails through choked up woods so that a landowner can access more
remote areas helps someone see the whole property even if all woods are not
cleaned up. Clearing up pond sites, old fencerows, old house sites, etc are all
common to clearing residential lots. Making a lot "pretty" often makes the sale.
In the wildlife management realm, landowners and managers are using these machines to recapture sites that have "gotten away". Lack of burning, and cutting practices often result in sites overgrown with low quality hardwood (gum, elm, maple, etc), or a "super abundance" of pine regeneration taking over. Landowners often purchase degraded or unmanaged properties and would like to convert these sites to productive habitat. Reclamation of these sites is necessary through some method.
Understory clearing is popular in pine, pine/hardwood, and hardwood stands. While commercial thinning is the preferred method to opening up a stand, often the trees are so overcrowded and/or have so few commercially valuable stems that waiting for them to become "merchantable" may be unrealistic. Pine stand renovation (for both wildlife habitat creation and timber growth) has become popular in several forms including herbicide applications in conjunction with burning. While this method is particularly useful when the stand has been regularly burned and the hardwood stems are small, gum and other low quality hardwoods often become too big to handle spraying with a ground crew and may take a longer time to achieve the desired results. These larger diameter stems can also be removed with a grinder to get the sprouts low to the ground and ready to be sprayed thereby decreasing the turnaround time dramatically.
Removing low quality hardwood for wildlife and timber stand improvement (WSI and TSI) is also a much promoted method to improve the wildlife and timber value of a stand. Grinders are particularly adept at selecting only the size class, quality and species that a landowner wants removed and leaving the rest of the stand undamaged. Removing elm, sweetgum, hickory, ironwood, and maple, etc., while leaving dogwood, blueberry, persimmon, etc. is an excellent way to improve the wildlife and timber value of a stand.
Setting up a property for increased hunting and viewing opportunities through trails and "spoke and hub" systems can also be accomplished with these machines. Running the grinder through a sapling pine or hardwood stand is easily accomplished and once ground out, the area can be ready to disk and plant without additional clearing or stumping. Another common use is cleaning up following a commercial logging operation. There is always a "mess" left once loggers have finished thinning a site. Pre-merchantable (and sometimes merchantable) stems are usually scattered around the site and are often leaned over, broken off, tipped up or damaged somehow. We have used these machines extensively on both thinned and clearcut ground to cleanup following loggers.
Pre-commercial thinning is another opportunity for use with these machines. While most pre-commercial thinning is done to prevent beetle infestations in pine stands, grinders can be used to cut corridors through the stand to provide access for the hand thinning crew to get to the remaining wooded corridors and cut unwanted stems. I have seen grinders used for field clearing as well where the unwanted stems are ground into the first couple inches of soil and the site was ready to plant. This method is somewhat time consuming (and dollar consuming) but it is a good method to clear a site and incorporate organic material into the soil. This "humus or mulch" will add nutrients and increase water retention of the soil.
These machines have become fairly common in parts of the southeast and range in size from smaller PTO mounted mulchers that attach to the back of a tractor to huge track machines with 10’ grinding heads and 300+ horsepower. The larger machines are, obviously, well suited to large clearing jobs. They can clear a lot of ground fast but carry a high per hour cost. Using large machines to clear woodlots with lots of remaining trees can also lead to significant damage in the residual stand. The smaller units are very nimble and work easily through wooded areas, but are limited to light duty jobs. The smaller PTO driven and "skid steer - bobcat" type machines can be slow and may get stopped up with small debris often, but are great for a landowner who has time and wants to do it himself. They can handle material up to 4-5" diameter and are also reasonably priced. Tracked machines hold up well on moist ground and self-leveling units do well in steeper terrain. Rubber tired units are a little faster and more nimble in the woods and can speed up the operation where saplings and brush to be removed are scattered.
Mid-sized units in the 150-220 hp can combine some of both the smaller and larger units. They do not handle as big a tree as easily as the largest units but they are relatively nimble in the woods. They are certainly a significant amount faster than the smaller units and handle larger material more efficiently. Mid sized machines handle trees up to 8-10" relatively easily. Our machine (pictured in these photos) is a 185 hp, hydro-ax. It is basically a feller-buncher, rubber tired machine with an 8 foot grinder head mounted on the front. Land clearing with this machine can run from 3 acres an hour (very few stems per acre) to 3 or more hours per acre (lots of larger stems per acre). The grinder work depicted in many of the photos in this article ran around 1-2 hours per acre. There were quite a few stems in the smaller diameters throughout these tracts. In many photos you can see un-cleared acres behind or beside the machine.
So if you are looking at acres of impenetrable thickets and hardwood brush choking out your hunting land and competing with your merchantable trees, look into one of the many types of grinders available.
Ted DeVos is co-owner of Bach and DeVos Forestry and Wildlife Services, a land management consulting firm in Montgomery, Alabama. Ted is a Certified Wildlife Biologist and Registered Forester. For information on their services or use of their grinder, contact them at 334-269-2224.
DeVos, Ted. "Woodland Grinders; An Alternative to Traditional Land Clearing and Habitat Restoration." Covey Rise 03.2005. 7-8.
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