DEAR TIM: Land clearing is now on my radar since I purchased some raw land to build a new home. The land has lots of large trees and just a few bushes. I don't know where to start or how to do this. Is clearing land something I should consider doing myself? What kind of land clearing equipment would I need? Are there regulations about land clearing that affect what I do? Mike G., Hewlett, NY
DEAR MIKE: I can think of lots of do-it-yourself projects, but I have to be honest; land clearing would be either at the bottom of the list or left off on purpose. Clearing land is hard work, and typically involves lots of large heavy equipment not usually operated by weekend warriors. I am not saying you can't do this, but I am saying it is a very large-scale project, even if it is a smaller building lot.
The list of land clearing equipment starts with simple hand tools and can extend all the way up to enormous bulldozers used for clearing land. At the very least you will need a powerful commercial grade chain saw or two and all safety equipment that one uses with chain saws. If you have never operated a chain saw, then you must obtain training. Felling trees is extremely dangerous. Even when a tree has fallen, it can have stored energy that can cause the tree to roll or move in such a way to cause the saw to bind or you to get crushed.
There are all sorts of ways to do land clearing and if you ask five experts, you most likely will get five different answers. The method chosen often has lots to do with what happens to the trees and bushes that are being removed. Some land-clearing experts love to push down the entire tree, and then move it over to a place on the land where it can be processed. Other people like to cut down the tree leaving a stump that sticks out of the ground about three feet. The stump stub gives a bulldozer leverage to pop the stump out of the ground much like a wisdom tooth from a teenager's jaw.
Before you do anything, you may want to see if you have any valuable timber on the land. You might be surprised to discover that the trees you intend to remove might have value to someone. Be sure to get multiple estimates from timber buyers. In some cases, they will actually come in and do the tree removal for you as part of the deal. If you decide to do this, get referrals from other landowners who worked with the timber company. Some timber companies respect landowners and the land, while others tend to think only of themselves leaving you with a giant mess as well as a raped and scarred piece of land.
You need to check with your local government as well as regional and state officials. There may be scads of regulations regarding land clearing, including but not limited to, timber permits, silt fencing, tree ordinances, burning, composting, burying organic material, etc. Land clearing is considered by many to be a harmful process, so it can be highly regulated in many areas. Some places will allow you to burn the brush and limbs, while others might require you to grind and compost the trees and bushes.
You often can rent medium-sized equipment that can do a somewhat respectable job of clearing land. Recently, I rented a powerful skid-steer loader that was able to move stumps that weighed over two tons. The same tool-rental company rented a tracked excavator backhoe. This machine allowed me to dig drainage trenches and remove stumps with ease.
I have used this type of mechanical equipment for years so I was very proficient with it. It can take hours or days for a beginner to learn how to extract the most efficiency from these powerful machines, so don't expect to get lots of work done the first few times using this land-clearing machinery. If you decide to rent equipment like this, have frank discussions with the tool rental company. Ask if they have a training facility where you can learn how to safely use the machines.
If you decide to cut down the trees using a chain saw, try to avoid cutting down multiple trees that fall down upon one another. You may end up with a rat's nest of limbs that make it hard to get at and remove the debris.
You should absolutely try to recruit helpers when you start this land-clearing project. You will almost always have some hand work to do with smaller tools and it can become tedious if you try this alone. It is also a great idea to have others there for safety reasons. If someone gets hurt, the others can give aid or call for help.
Once the land is cleared, erosion becomes a serious threat. Consider seeding the ground with some sort of grass that will hold the topsoil. Annual rye grass is sometimes used if you are working in the fall. Talk with a local extension agent or government soil district employee who knows how to preserve this valuable natural resource.