There’s no question that land clearing is a down-and-dirty segment of the tree industry, with plenty of muscle and brute force needed to get the job done. However, there’s also plenty of nuance and detail work involved in a good land-clearing job, says Matt Bouchard, owner of Northeast Top Notch Landworks in Concord, New Hampshire. His company provides a range of tree care and landscape services, including land clearing.
From protecting the land against unnecessary damage to filing the proper paperwork to leaving the site in good shape, there’s a lot more that goes into small-scale land clearing — a new house lot or expanding an existing yard, for example — than simply showing up with a huge piece of equipment and starting to knock down trees, Bouchard says.
“I look at land-clearing jobs as running the gamut from logging to landscaping; you have to start with the tree removal and end by cleaning everything up,” he states. While Bouchard takes on some larger commercial projects, he focuses more on working with individual landowners.
On some jobs, Bouchard finds himself bidding against logging contractors. Many times his bids come in lower, because he does more work by hand. So, while the job might take him a bit longer, it might also be less expensive for the landowner. “When I come in there, I don’t come in with $600,000 worth of equipment and rip the ground up. A lot of companies will go in there with huge skidders and feller-bunchers. Everything we do is hand-cut,” he explains.
After the chain saw work, Bouchard relies on a nimble Bobcat T650 compact track loader with a front grapple to move the logs that are produced. “There’s a little less impact on the earth, and that’s why I’m able to work in and around existing houses and lawns,” he notes. “The PSI from the track is just a fraction of a 30,000-pound machine.” Using a larger machine may make the clearing phase of the job go quicker, but it increases the amount of cleanup and repair work needed afterwards on sites where that is a requirement. “If you make a whole bunch of ruts, someone has to fill them in,” he adds.
Bouchard says there are plenty of good loggers out there, but they tend to follow a different model than what is taken by a tree services provider when it comes to land clearing. For example, they may cut all the trees, but leave the slash on-site, or maybe chip it and leave it there. “With tree services, we’re used to leaving a raked finish when we remove a tree on a lawn. So when I do a yard expansion project, it’s the same type of approach, just on a different scale,” Bouchard explains.
Even following a careful approach and cleaning things up after, he says it’s important to communicate to the landowner that things will get a little messy on any land-clearing job. “I warn them that there’s always destruction before there’s construction. Otherwise, they’ll look out there at some point and all they’ll see are trees everywhere and they’ll think it’s a mess,” says Bouchard.
After cutting, the trees are sorted by species and quality; some head to the lumber mill, others to the pulp mill. Some trees are simply chipped into a chip box and trucked off to be sold. “If I can get a little bit of money from the chips, that helps me be a little lower on the bid,” Bouchard notes. On occasion, if the site gets wet, he uses the chips to cover areas to prevent muddy ruts, and then removes them at the end of the job. Sometimes the homeowner wants a pile of the chips for use in the landscape or garden.
Bouchard provides a written contract for all of this land-clearing jobs, which sometimes includes a provision that the landowner will get back a percentage of the value of the logs at the mill. He provides a copy of the scale slip he receives from the mill to ensure the client knows everything is being handled fairly.
Once the lumber is gone, he uses a Hyundai 160 tracked excavator to pop the stumps and remove those. While it’s a larger machine, its path is limited to just moving from stump to stump without much residual damage to the land. The stumps are trucked off to a stump dump; it doesn’t make financial sense for him to spend hours removing the dirt from the stumps, so there’s usually an extra charge at the dump, Bouchard notes.
He then uses his Bobcat with an attachment to grade the site after clearing is complete. “Finally, we hydroseed everything. I recommend that because you can get germination in only about four days. That provides a clean finish to the job, as opposed to just having the site logged,” Bouchard emphasizes. Landowners appreciate that his company can handle every part of a yard expansion or other small land-clearing job, from the rough tree removal to the fine finish details, with one call, he observes.
There are details to pay attention to on-site for a land-clearing job, and there’s also plenty of paperwork and budgeting required in the office. In New Hampshire, timber taxes are charged by individual towns whenever land is cleared. Bouchard says, “Each town is different, so I have to go to the town office to get an ‘intent to cut’ permit, and then later pay timber taxes based on the MBF [thousand board feet] removed and shown on the scale slip.” Generally, no tax is charged on yard expansion projects if the trees removed would be in contact with the dwelling if they were to fall over.
He says it’s also important to ensure that property boundaries are precisely established before any work starts; the landowner may not know exactly where lines fall. There may also be regulations on setbacks or buffer zones that may determine how close to a boundary line, or wetlands, etc., can be cleared. In some cases, only a certain percentage of the board feet of wood on a property can be removed in a given year. Again, these regulations may vary from municipality to municipality, so you need to research to find out what is possible. Bouchard says it’s essential to pay attention to the laws and regulations, because violations can result in big fines and a poor reputation.
Bidding land-clearing jobs is also trickier than, say, bidding the removal of a single landscape tree, says Bouchard. First, the scale is larger. He might be clearing 5 acres, so there’s a lot of inspection work involved to check how good the access is, how many trees are involved, the characteristics of the site, etc. He must factor the costs of the permits, hauling away stumps and chips, and the time required to complete the job, weighed against the potential profit from selling the timber, minus timber taxes and any percentage of timber sales being returned to the customer.
Bouchard is frequently hired by landowners to come in and finish a job started by someone else who left after realizing the job wasn’t profitable. In many of those cases he must charge extra because the valuable trees have already been removed and he has to clean up the mess left by another contractor. Bouchard says explaining each part of the process to the landowner is also important, so they can accurately compare bids (one may require the landowner to pay the timber tax, another might include no site work after the job, etc.), rather than simply going with the lowest quote they get.