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A Wildlife Investment: The Value Hiding in Brush Piles

     I honed my trail maintenance skills as a young man on a DEC Trail crew team in the Adirondack high peaks.  There I learned a wide variety of valuable skills and techniques, everything from axemanship, to two-man blowdown clearing bowsaw skills, crafting freshly felled cedar trees into water bars, ladders and stringer bridges. I even studied the mystic art of building bases for trailside privies.

     One thing that I never gave much thought to back then, as we braved blackfly blitzkriegs, dragging evergreen mountains of hand cut logs, branches and brush clear of mile after mile of winding high peaks trails, was the value resident non-hiking boot clad denizens found in the tangled mass branches we discarded as refuse.

     To be fair, our focus then was trail maintenance, not wildlife management. Still, looking back, it may have been opportunity lost.  Mountain winters are harsh. Survival can be tenuous, even for the hardiest high peaks residents.

     I no longer make my home inside the blue line. My seventeen acres sits about three dozen country miles west of that boundary.  It was once a post war farm lot, after being cleared of white pine and oak timber to support Sackets Harbor’s 1812 war effort. By the time my wife and I bought it, it was an overgrown tangled mass of rusted barbed wire and nasty thorn apple scrub brush.

     I went about putting my trail crew skill set to work, bit by bit creating my own private network, nearly a mile and a half of meandering walking trails and hand dug ponds.

     Cutting and clearing those trails and ponds generated two things in abundance, sweat and brush.  Tons of it. Sweat stained shirts I could deal with. However, early on I realized, I needed my own personal Monroe “Estate Land Master Plan” to dispose of the brush.

     I had options. I could have burned it. Early on, some I did. However, wasting valuable daylight tending smoke spewing piled brush fires somehow seemed anathema to my purpose, not to mention the fact that they were wickedly hot.

     I could simply have taken all that brush to the town dump. That would have meant buying and registering a trailer, hours spent loading and unloading, and being tethered to our dump’s Wednesday/Saturday hours of operation.

     No, my plan demanded a far more eco- friendly solution.  Simple is better. I began building brush piles.

     Building a brush pile sounds easy. Clear a whole big bunch of brush. Then pile it.  Simple. As with most everything though, there’s an easy way, a right way, and my way.  

     I rarely do anything the easy way. I’m not sure I’d even know what that was. The same with “the right way” (as those who know me would attest). I do most everything I do the only way I know how. My way.  It’s not always pretty, but it most generally works.

     So, I set about contemplating the strategic deployment of brush piles. First, I selected spots along my trail network that avoided disturbing active game trails and drainages. Then I hand cleared the brush from easily accessible trailside areas, being sure to make them wide and deep enough to accommodate the next several years of accumulated trail maintenance debris. Incorporating designated brush pile sites along my trails became standard practice.  It saved time, reduced brush disposal labor efforts, and kept the wood line along my trail network far more navigable and visibly cleaner.

     I also paid some attention to brush pile construction. I quickly found it paid dividends to lay all the brush in one direction, leaf end away, and to take the few extra minutes required to cut lateral limbs to enhance stacking.

     My brush pile inventory has grown through the years. I now have well over two dozen of them. Some are quite large, others a bit smaller.

     The results have been striking. When we first bought our land, it was dead.  An abandoned farm graveyard. I could walk my perimeter and see nary bird nor beast. Abandoned after over a century and a half of environmentally ignorant farming practice, deathly silence. It was eerie.

    The transformation happened gradually, but my land is now alive again, thriving. My brush piles provide nesting sites, concealed summer resting spots, winter cover and den sites to a wide array of songbirds, game birds, and wildlife.

     Now I walk my trails with my own private menagerie. Rarely a day goes by without an encounter with wild turkeys, deer, grouse, porcupines, racoons, squirrels, scurrying critters or rabbits.

With them come predators; foxes, coyotes, fishers, hawks, even an occasional eagle or bobcat!

I get many cool photos on my array of trail cams.


     I enjoy walking my trails, but I’m also a hunter.  I find that integrating a few brush piles with wildlife food plots near my tree stands is a most productive technique.

     My son RJ recently graduated from Paul Smith’s College, where he majored in wildlife sciences. His studies there confirmed my findings.  Apparently during winter wildlife will often choose cover sites over food. While he and I have planted hundreds of conifer seedlings; blue spruce, white and red pine, cedar; they take years to mature sufficiently to provide wildlife windbreaks and cover.

  Our land management plan needed something cost effective that was far more immediate.  Brush piles provide that.

    So, in summary, whether within blue line boundaries or beyond, whatever one’s agenda or interest may be, an investment in brush piles can prove to be a wildlife bonanza. I highly recommend adding a few when planning individual land management.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: