Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Hidden Value of Brush Piles

brush pile and wildlife

A Wildlife Investment

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 “State 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 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 a “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 apparently confirmed my findings.  Apparently during winter wildlife will often choose cover sites over food. 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.

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A veteran north country writer & story teller raised in Saranac Lake, Dick enjoys “Living in the Day I Am In”, and then writing about it. A severely speech impaired 3x cancer survivor, his pen is his voice. He shares many of his Adirondack Outlaw adventures & tales here. Read the rest on his blog @

9 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    Great information. Confirms my experiences as well. Several smaller critters including grouse, varying hares, stoats, and way too many red squirrels find our brush piles convenient for their needs, year round. Well done Richard.

  2. Tony Mawad says:

    I am someone that tries to give back to Nature whenever I can. I try to welcome native wildlife because I know a lot of people don’t seem to want them around and would rather do other things with their property. I love the photos I have been able to acquire even from my tiny yard in a city: birds of all colors and species that other folks that feed birds haven’t even heard of. I grab xmas trees off of the street when people are done with them and use them in my yard. I could just plant native shrubs or alive trees but my dream is to be out of my area so I may not be around to see said shrubs grow enough to serve the birds. I guess I am just trying to explain that I myself have seen how much birds appreciate brush piles or old xmas trees or even a dead tree. The used xmas trees give birds a place to hide, a place to feel safe, a place to feel like they aren’t seen or noticed, and a place to rest. Standing dead trees give woodpeckers a place to live, and if they move on, other birds or critters will use those nest holes in those trees. Dead trees are easier for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees to peck a cavity nest from. If you can, leave dead trees out there as a lot of animals would appreciate that. It has been a great journey and very interesting hobby trying to provide native wildlife a place they will enjoy visiting. And I’ve made a lot of little friends while doing so, I definitely know they appreciate my efforts!

  3. Buck says:

    Three years ago I logged my small lot in the eastern Adirondacks. Primarily a management cut (first since 1987) but I did have about an acre cleared of evergreens only so more winter sun hits my house. What a difference there. Anyway, when I cleaned some of treetops, I kept the all the hardwood for my wood stove and a lot of the softwood for my outdoor fire. The rest made for a couple of big brush piles just like you say. Lots of critters around, and the brush piles double as hunting blinds for deer and turkeys. Although they are shrinking already.

  4. Boreas says:

    My towering white pine trees keep my brush piles supplied with fresh topping. But I am not too particular as to how the limbs are arranged. They just get tossed on top if I can lift them. If not, they get dragged to the side. Leaves and clippings from shrubs add a little insulation.

  5. JT says:

    I’ve been making brush piles from the buckthorn I have been cutting. What I cannot use for firewood goes onto brush piles. They are very popular with the chipmunks and squirrels. A gentleman once recommended throwing some acorns in the brush piles.
    If the squirrels do not get them and they produce seedlings, they will be protected from deer browse.

  6. John boy says:

    Oh yes the comment on bush piles protecting new growth trees hits home so much for folks hoping to have replacement sugar maple trees grow in their Sugar Bush. Sadly, deer love to eat off new maple sprouts and leave other less desirable trees alone. Too many deer? Always a question with no answer.

  7. Stan Scharf says:

    The combined pressures of deer browse, introduced diseases and other factors have hindered the regeneration of forests with desirable species composition and healthy ecological function. At the Arnot, recent attempts to regenerate healthy forests have been obstructed by competition from diseased beech thickets, striped maple and other undesirable species. To address this problem, Cornell researchers have begun testing the feasibility of methods to control diseased beech and ******enclose regeneration sites in a protective barrier of woody debris.

  8. geogymn says:

    Stan, Great link! Thanks!

  9. Lou Norman says:

    I have brush piles and I will make more! Great Read!

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