Tree Harvesting on Swampy Land

Here is an argumentative, but also informative, thread about whether and how to extract useful wood from a plot of ground that is impassably wet during summer. June 14, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I am picking up a piece of forested property (a couple hundred acres) in Northern New York that I'd like to cut timber on if possible. It has a creek running through it, and it's almost all a very flat piece of land that tends to be pretty swampy. Not swampy like a duck marsh that could swim in, but more of shallow spongy ground that you might sink up to your knees in. It is brushy land with a mix of hardwoods and evergreens, none of which are very big - maybe six-ten inches in diameter, twenty or so feet tall.

I have only poked around the edge of the property, and need to explore the interior later this spring when the snow melt is gone. Since it's winter I haven't been able to figure out what trees are hardwoods that have shed their leaves, and how many are either hardwoods or pines that are dead from the water. The land has been spongy like this for at least 15-20 years, probably more.

I would like to make some use of all this wood. It would be nice if any of it is mill-able, but I realize I probably won't be able to tell that until I get into the thick of the trees and size them up. I could cut some paths through it and harvest some poles, chip board, or firewood that would be something. Is it even possible to get any sort of machinery into land like this? Would a tractor or backhoe sink up to its axles? What should I look for when I tramp through the property? What are the rules on wetlands these days? Can I fill at all, or dig canals or ponds or anything? Any thoughts to keep my brain busy during this long winter will be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Forestry Forum)

From contributor W:
Every area is different. I would get with a local forester to figure your options. Maybe a state or county extension agent may be worth the money for a private forester. Get a pro involved who knows the rules.

From the original questioner:
I definitely intend to get a state forest guy involved. A friend of mine did with a piece of land he owns in another part of the state, and he was surprised what the forest guy recommended (clear cut) although it made sense after he had it explained to him. He was impressed with the guy's level of knowledge and helpfulness. My purpose with this post is just to get some general ideas for options that are out there, until I get a chance to get up there again and really scout it out, and get some real forestry advice. I am wondering if anyone else has had experience with a similar property with the dual challenges of soggy land and small, possibly dead trees.

From contributor W:
I have a friend that farms and had a field they farmed for 50 years and in the winter some years water would collect. So a few years back the government called it a wet-land and now he's out of luck. All the field is good for is pasture which he can't use.

From contributor Y:
Talk to your local land trust, and get the name of a forester who can help you work out a long term plan. Gentle logging might leave the forest looking good enough so that prospective buyers won't grimace when they look at it in 25 years. That land is yours for a very short time, and others will be there after you are gone.

If you do decide to violate wetlands rules, be aware that the state finds violators through aerial surveys. Once the state finds what is destroyed, they help the land owner contract with wetlands restoration specialists who can put it back. The going rate for wetlands restoration is $85. per hour per person, payable by the land owner. The reason for preserving the wetlands is that they are the treatment system for dirty water, the sponge for flood control, the stabilizer of the climate, the central breeding and feeding ground for wildlife and the reserve of biodiversity.

From contributor W:
I talked to my farmer friend recently and he has leased out about 300 acres of his problem to a conservation-sportsmen group and they are going to manage it for wildlife and hunting. So I guess everyone is happy. Itís something to think about, but do get professional advice.

From Contributor W:
I too recommend getting a soils report from the NRCS to understand the potential of the land to grow timber and I also recommend that you get an inventory of the timber. A forester can do this for you. That way, you have good data to base your options on. Without this information, you will be handicapped.

From the original questioner:
In any case, this is a nice piece of land that I intend to live on at least part time, and the last thing I want to do is make it ugly. It is so thick with timber in various stages of life and decay that it seems a shame to let it all go to waste. I wish I had started tramping around on this property when it was frozen hard, which sounds like was probably the best time to do it. Right now it's too warm to be solid, but cold and soggy enough that it will be miserable hiking. I'm going to give it a shot with a pair of chest waders in the next week or so, and see how far in I can get, and what I can learn. My other hope is that after a hot dry summer, maybe August or so, it may dry up enough to make exploring more feasible.

I want to figure out exactly what sort of trees are growing there, whether they are of a species and size that has any marketable value (or even for personal use), and how much of the land is wet vs. dry. The soil analysis suggestion sounds good. It will be interesting to find out if there is any way to harvest any wood legally and thus, responsibly. I'm making an assumption that if it's legal it's responsible, which I may learn is not the case. My sense though, is that the state protects wetlands or soggy ground so zealously that whatever they give a green light for is ok. In my imagination I picture some paths winding through the property from which I could selectively harvest appropriate trees and transport them back to the road somehow. I can't picture doing this without some sort of vehicle, and I'm wondering if there is a vehicle that will operate on soggy ground in an appropriately low-impact way. ATV maybe, Bobcat possibly, small farm tractor probably not, I'm guessing. I appreciate the input, and welcome any further ideas or suggestions.

From contributor T:
I too own land in NNY. Much of it would be considered swampy or wetlands and the ever increasing beaver population has added many acres to this category. I may be further north than you as I can still walk most of my land on frozen ground particularly in the early mornings. Winter is definitely the time to be on the land. I own and use a team of work horses. I use the team and a sled to harvest firewood and some wood products from my entire farm. It is all done legally and with the help and input of a local forester. The DEC even provided nuisance permits which allowed for the removal of some of the beaver's handiwork.

From Contributor P:
I have 155 acres in AK and about half is wetlands. Winter is the time to get equipment in if thatís your goal. The Forest Service did a report on the properties for free and gave me ways to help tree growth and help wildlife. They were nice to deal with. I plan to keep my wetlands as they are for all the fox, moose, rabbits, wolf, bear and birds that live there. Sounds like you want to explore it and get some small use such as firewood or project woods from it and enjoy it. I don't think you'll have a problem doing that. How about making a list of all the animals and plants that live there? Good school project for the kids too.

From contributor K:
I live just north of the border in Ontario with about 60 acres of swamp. Itís flooded most of the year with a short period of time in the late summer when it becomes only spongy. During the winter freeze up it is one big rink. With an ATV I can skid out all the logs I want for fire wood. I cut trails only no clear cuts. I now have access where no man has walked before. When the water is down deer use these trails to navigate the swamp and in high water I can kayak and my dogs wade along beside me. Generations before me have cursed this swamp - I will never part with it. Get yourself an ATV, a chainsaw and kayak (small ten-footer) and go enjoy your property, you'll be amazed at what you find.

From contributor E:
If your land is covered by soggy or muddy soil that is 1' to 2' deep, you are facing a difficult task if you are going to try and log without heavy equipment. Given the stated dimensions of the hardwoods, the trees are going to weigh in access of 1k lbs. While a bobcat or tractor would be able to pull this amount on solid ground with a tree dolly, neither of these pieces of equipment would be able to perform this task if buried in a foot of mud.

Laws of physics are at play here. From personal experience, growing up with a father that logged in Alaska, I can tell you that given the amount of land you have the only feasible way to log any of it will be to cut usable roads traversable by a 4x4. Find your most usable area for logging and build a road adjacent to it. This way you have access to it and other areas that may not look as beneficial. Do that if you only one road; however, I would build a road that runs the entire length of your property from East to West and one that runs from North to South. This way even if most of your land is soggy you should be able to still find trees that will be close enough to your road that you would be able to use some type of small equipment to pull the log out (4 wheeler, bobcat, or tractor). If you are unable to do this than your only option is a skidder, and honestly with you having 200 acres a skidder could easily maneuver on your land without doing excessive damage if you have an experienced operator. I hope this answers your question and helps you develop ideas on how to address your issue.