May 24, 2020

How to Clear Land by James Starbuck

The Big Idea: use a backhoe to topple and then use forks on the backhoe to move into brush piles.

  • I know what you’re up to… you’re on a mission to reveal your land. You want to show it off by uncovering its natural attributes.
  • I don’t favor clear cutting – the practice of cutting all sizable plants from a tract of land.
  • I could hire, in my upstate New York hometown, a skilled chainsaw man for $15-$20 an hour. That’s only for his saw and labor. Using it, he can drop whatever’s in his way.
  • I found a skilled and honest young logger who owns a small log skidder who could saw anything, then use his skidder to cinch debris and pull it to anywhere on my land. He charged $45 an hour.
  • I haven’t used any tree surgeons in my land-clearing project. A tree surgeon is a good choice to get rid of one problem tree in the middle of your beautiful lawn.
  • My first mission was to begin to grasp the size and scope of my project. I traveled light with safety glasses, gloves, and a machete.
  • There’s a breed of brush mowers out that I bet could cut down sunflower stalks and sumac shoots pretty well.
  • Skidders: I’ll get skidders out of the way first, cause it didn’t take long to conclude a skidder wasn’t right for me. A skidder is a great tool. It bends in the middle for tight navigation. All its tires are equal size, so it’s very stable and can crawl over and around anything. They often have a small dozer blade in front for pushing and piling. The wire ropes and winch allows you to cinch onto quite a load of logs or debris piles and drag them a long distance in good time. However: A skidder can’t dig or grade. It doesn’t have the strength of hydraulic pistons. The operator has to get out of the machine to grab onto debris. If I can only have one machine, then a skidder isn’t the one that’s best for me.
  • Bulldozers: I was more serious about bulldozers. They’re very powerful. Dozers don’t get flat tires. They can grade, actually change the shape of the terrain, and not just scrape it. You can work stumps and boulders out. However: I gathered from talking to lots of people that bulldozers generate a lot of vibration and can gradually shake themselves into maintenance problems. Bulldozers are only doing work when they are in motion. Consequently, the machine is always working, unlike and excavator or backhoe, that set up and use other mechanics to do some of the work. Replacing undercarriages is expensive. I wasn’t going to be buying a new machine, no matter what type it was, and was therefore concerned about undercarriage wear. Bulldozers are not fast. I wanted to be able to remove debris at least 1000 feet or more to a stump dump. That’s a lot of additional running for a tracked machine. So again, if I can only have one machine, then a bulldozer isn’t the one that’s best for me.
  • Excavators: I thought a long time about excavators. I actually think I was close to going that route. They are very popular now, almost the hip thing to have. They come in all sizes. They are stable and have a light footprint on the ground (low ground pressure per square inch) because of the tracks. You don’t have to change seat positions to switch from moving the machine to digging. The reach is 360 degrees for fewer machine moves. Visibility is excellent and they don’t have stabilizers to deploy every time you move. The machines generally weigh less than comparable backhoes and are easier to transport. However: I still wasn’t going to be buying a new machine, so since they are tracked machines like bulldozers, I was still worried about undercarriage and track condition. Excavators are slow. I’d grow old waiting while dragging debris to the dumping area and waste the undercarriage if I did. When an excavator is fitted with a dozer blade, it’s small and not designed to deal with large brush piles. The blade is worthless. There’s no loader capability. I didn’t realize at the time how important it would be to have a front-end loader. As much as I like the features of an excavator, if I can only have one machine, then it’s not the one.
  • Backhoes: I backed my way into a backhoe. When I was a kid, I wanted a backhoe. Well into adulthood I said to people, “If you ever see me with a backhoe, you’ll know I’ve made it!” However, in the last few years, backhoes have started to feel like has-beens to me, overtaken by the new and fashionable excavator breed. All the extra turning of the seat and the raising and lowering of arms and buckets for stability now seemed unnecessary and clunky. It took awhile to see them again for what they are – an extremely versatile, all round, go fast, dig deep, lift high, load heavy, kind of machine that deserves a lot of respect. This was confirmed when I started asking excavator contractors I know, “What machine would you choose if you could only have one?” I think you know the answer. However: Backhoes can get stuck, get flat tires, you have to swivel the seat around all the time, you have to raise and lower the flaps, you have to move the machine a lot.
  • Regarding the type of machine I was looking for, I decided it was a backhoe.
  • Of all the miscellaneous tools and equipment I had gathered and was using, there were three absolutely indispensable tools I needed to pull off a big land clearing project. They are a backhoe, a pair of forks, and a front-end loader rake.
  • All the steps and techniques I used to transform a thickly overgrown and treed area into a cleared one, fell into six defined categories: Toppling, Plucking, Piling, Lifting, Moving, and Dumping.
  • I’d like to say how much fun I’ve had and satisfaction I’ve felt from the work associated with this project.