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Brush Piles For Wildlife Habitat

March 30, 2016

Conservation land managers often have many decisions to make when planning a sustainable timber harvest.  Habitat management and restoration projects can be costly, and the sale of timber products helps to offset those costs.  The products that are sold and the strategies employed to maximize benefits for conservation are crucial choices that must be made.

Brush pile

Brush pile

In order to increase the efficiency of the harvest, most parts of the tree are processed into a finished product.  The cumbersome tops of the tree are chipped and sold to biomass energy plants, where they are burned to create electricity.  The downside is that the price paid to landowners for biomass chips is sometimes not even worth the trucking costs to deliver the chips.  With recent closures of biomass plants in Maine, many landowners are looking for alternative uses for byproducts of logging operations.  Larger limbs and branches (also known as “slash”) are left in the woods, either filling in skidder trails or in well-managed piles.  Sometimes, leaving the brush in the forest is a far better alternative.

For conservation organizations like the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (DLLT), brush piles provide much more value when heaped into small, manageable mounds and left in different areas of the Farm Cove Community Forest.  These piles provide excellent habitat for many species that call the forest home.  Small mammals such as mice, voles, squirrels, and rabbits use the piles for cover and many species of woodland birds also take shelter among the branches.  Fresh brush piles also provide an easier-to-reach food supply of catkins, seeds, and inner bark that would normally be out of reach in the canopy.

“Under normal market conditions, DLLT splits the difference when it comes to biomass sold, and material returned to the forest,” says DLLT Community Forest Manager Kyle Burdick.  “Tree tops have a higher wood content and make better biomass, while branches off the trunk have a higher nutrient content.”

With a flurry of activity surrounding these dense piles, predators are often drawn in to find food.  Hawks and owls will patrol the brush for songbirds and rodents, and larger mammals such as coyotes, foxes, and bobcats prowl the edges, looking for an unsuspecting meal.  Over time, the mass of decaying wood fiber returns vital nutrients to the forest floor, helping foster new tree growth for the cycle to begin again.

“Biomass markets have played an important part of managing aesthetics and recreational access on the Farm Cove Community Forest,” says Burdick.  “Although we would prefer as many options as possible to achieve our goals, slash always serves a valuable purpose for habitat.”

The Downeast Lakes Land Trust manages the 33,708-acre Farm Cove Community Forest for wildlife habitat, sustainable timber production, and public recreation.  For more information, please contact DLLT at (207) 796 – 2100 or email