Beneficial Landscaping - Land Clearing | Region 10 | US EPA

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Beneficial Landscaping - Land Clearing

Clearing Your Wooded Lot? Look Before You Leap
During the drier summer months of the Pacific Northwest, the bulldozers are especially active with land clearing and site preparations for new construction. It's a good time to keep in mind that the single most effective beneficial landscaping practice is prevention. By "prevention" we mean that landowners can avoid the trouble and expense of restoring native or appropriate non-native vegetation and all the natural amenities it provides, by avoiding or minimizing the clearing of native vegetation in the first place. This preventive action can save you more than time and money; it can prevent heartache and foregone opportunities as well.
Wooded lots in the Pacific Northwest are often logged and cleared prior to development, with the intent of offsetting a portion of the construction costs, establishing a lawn, improving views, or facilitating construction activities. However good these reasons may seem, it is helpful to consider the possible drawbacks before taking action, and to learn how you can avoid, minimize, or mitigate the consequences. Here are a few pointers for those planning to purchase, clear, and develop land:
-If you haven't yet purchased property, consider buying an existing structure on land that is already developed and remodeling the structure or redeveloping the site if needed. This will preclude the need to clear more land.
-Clearing diminishes wildlife habitat, affects watershed hydrology, and may impact sensitive environmental areas. Consequently, depending upon the nature, extent and location of vegetation removal and ground disturbance, and/or the presence of sensitive environmental features, you may need a permit to log, clear, and/or grade the land. Be sure to check with the state and local government before disturbing anything.
-Clearing can cause expensive problems such as soil compaction, erosion, or damage resulting from blowdown of remaining trees. Heavy machinery can damage or kill trees that you may wish to retain. It's a good idea to contact an Extension Forester for advice in preventing many of these problems.
-The greater the land area that is cleared, the greater will be the area needing landscaping and maintenance. Land that is not replanted soon after clearing will be invaded by weeds. Controlling weeds or clearing the land a second time is costly. Plan to clear no more than you are willing and able to maintain.
-Trees on steep slopes are important for stabilizing the soils. The risk of landslide may increase if the trees are topped, heavily pruned, or removed to expose views.
-Trees can add value to property. They provide beauty, protection from the elements, privacy, and more. Retaining them may increase the resale value of your home.
-If your forest is left undisturbed, some or all of your property may be eligible for property tax reductions. Check with your local government to learn if your property qualifies for an open space, forestry, agricultural, or other public benefit tax exemption.
-It's possible to earn income from the land without cutting the trees. There is an increasing market for specialty forest products, such as floral greens and boughs. Cooperative Extension has information about these opportunities.
Remember that it takes only moments to clear land, but many generations and vigilant management for it to become re-established. If you do log or clear your land, plan carefully and seek professional advice if need be. There are many things you can do to protect the integrity of your site and preserve its most beneficial features.
Adapted with permission from an article by Elliott Menashe of Greenbelt Consulting, Whidbey Island, Washington.


Save Those Snags!

The August, 2003 edition of WaterTalk discussed the benefits of downed wood in the landscape. The recent wind, snow, and ice storms in the Pacific Northwest have produced an ample supply to enhance the wildlife and other values in your landscape! The storms also created many broken trees. Broken top live trees, dead, and partially dead standing trees, called snags, are the result.

As with downed wood, snags may appear untidy to humans, but wildlife (birds, mammals, insects, invertebrates) see them as a localized Shangri-La! Snags of all species, heights, diameters, and states of decomposition are of value. Before you “rev up” the chainsaw, consider that unless a snag poses a safety hazard, it is a great idea to retain it for the many benefits it can provide. These include: cavity nest sites, nesting platforms, feeding substrates, plucking posts, singing or drumming sites, food caches or granaries, courtship locations, overwintering sites, roosts, lookout posts, hunting and hawking perches, fledging sites, dwellings or dens, loafing sites, nesting under bark, communal nesting or nursery colonies, nutcracking anvil sites, thermally regulated habitat to escape excessive heat or cold, and substrate for plants and fungi (2). No wonder snags are often called wildlife condominiums!

Snag location is also a consideration. Snags have the greatest value when they are part of or connected to a forest. If a snag is relatively isolated, it is helpful to surround it with shrubs, small trees, or other vegetation to protect it from wind and to provide a more hospitable environment for wildlife near the snag. In his book, Landscaping for Wildlife (1) , Russell Link points out that snags in urban areas are best located away from high activity areas where they won’t pose a hazard. Otherwise they should be left in as many different habitats as possible, such as along streams, in ravines, marshes, lakes, at the edges of greenbelts, and in virtually any vegetated open space that can safely accommodate it.

Where and when snags are not so plentiful as they are now, they can be created from live trees that are damaged, or that are undesirable for reasons such as shading, spacing, or invasive roots. For ways to create snags from live trees, consult a good reference (see those listed below), and consider hiring a knowledgeable, reputable tree service. For more information on this or other topics in beneficial landscaping, contact Elaine Somers at 206/553-2966 or 1-800-424-4372,, or visit our website at


(1) Link, Russell. Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Press, 1999.

(2) Brown, E. Reade, Technical Editor, U.S.D.A. Forest Service. Management of Wildlife and Fish Habitats in Forests of Western Oregon and Washington, 1985.

(3) Stevens, Michelle L, and Vanbianchi, Ron, Principal Authors. Restoring Wetlands in Washington: A Guidebook for Wetland Restoration, Planning and Implementation, Washington Department of Ecology, Publication #93-17.


Downed wood – A Many Splendored Thing

One of the most interesting and beneficial features you can incorporate into your natural landscape is downed wood. Downed wood comes in all sizes and shapes – twigs, branches, logs, and even root wads. Large downed logs are often termed “nurse logs” because, as they decay, they serve as the host for growth of new vegetation. Nurse logs can add visual interest with their contrasting form, texture, color, and the diversity of life they support – mosses, lichens, fungi, seedling plants, insects, and more. More than “just a pretty face”, a nurse log offers a matchless multitude of helpful, protective and life sustaining functions. Here are a few:

Logs absorb, retain, and slowly release water – if you have a puddled wet area in winter, the log can absorb it, and provide a source of moisture in the dry summer months.

Logs on hillslopes, especially parallel to the slope, help to reduce erosion, trap sediment, control runoff, and create a nursery for new plants that will help to stabilize the soil.

Logs are a storehouse of nutrients and energy. Like a long-term “slow release” fertilizer, they return nutrients to the soil and release energy to organisms.

If you have a water feature or stream on your property, logs can be used as bridges for mammals, or as partially submerged platforms for resting, feeding, or preening wildlife.

Russell Link explains in his book, Landscaping for Wildlife, that as a log advances through different stages of decay, it provides amenities for different species of wildlife. Early decay offers a perch, lookout, or sunbasking site for birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and lizards. Later, when the log settles into the ground and the bark loosens, beetles and salamanders move in and the moisture attracts frogs, voles, and mice. Insect residents provide food for birds and small mammals. When the log softens, animals burrow into it for shelter and food. The resulting burrows and tunnels offer safe haven for amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals; a hollow log will house a racoon or fox. In its final stages of decay, the log becomes soft and crumbly. Insects and insect eating animals increase, and the soft substrate can offer moisture for fungi, a place for squirrels to bury nuts and seeds, a dry dust bath for forest birds, or a soft bed for larger animals. Finally, the entire log re-enters and enriches the soil.

The easiest way to incorporate downed wood into your landscape is to leave it where it naturally falls. If you want to add a log or move it, it’s best to place it in partial shade, and excavate a depression in the ground for it that is about a fourth of the log’s diameter. Piles of twigs, branches, or a root wad can also be placed for desired effects. Plant your wood – and watch what happens!

For more information about beneficial landscaping, contact Elaine Somers at 206/553-2966,, or visit the website at

Reference: Link, Russell. Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, 1999.


Native Plant Salvage Has Taken Root

When efforts to prevent the loss of native habitats have been exhausted and the bulldozers are scheduled to roll, there is yet another way to make a difference – native plant salvage! A growing number of local native plant salvage operations have sprouted, offering hope for homeless plants. Salvage programs are generally sponsored by County and/or University Cooperative Extension programs, but the majority of the work is done by volunteers. It is a year round effort, but to ensure plant survival, most plant salvage work is conducted in fall, winter, and early spring.

There is always plenty to do. Salvage programs must locate salvage sites, secure landowner permission, organize volunteers, and establish holding facilities/nurseries for the salvaged plants. They also locate restoration sites, construct websites for outreach and communication, conduct workshops, and more.

The benefits are numerous too! Our lovely native flora, from forests to prairies, are given a new lease on life; wildlife habitat is restored; streams are buffered; water conserving natural landscapes are established; knowledge and appreciation of our native flora is enhanced; and, yes, friends are made. An added bonus is that the salvage program may allow the volunteers to take home some of the salvaged plants.

If this sounds good to you, cast off the winter blahs and join in! In your state, search the internet for “native plant salvage,” contact your state’s Native Plant Society, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office. If there are no salvage programs in your state, why not help to start one? We are aware of these established programs and Native Plant Societies in PNW states and Alaska:

Thurston County Extension Native Plant Salvage Project
Contact: Erica Guttman, 360-754-3588, extension 110

Pierce County Native Plant Salvage
Contact: Anna Thurston, Contract Facilitator, 253-566-3342
King County Native Plant Salvage
Contact: Greg Rabourn, 206-296-1923
Snohomish County Native Plant Program
Scott Moore, Native Plant Steward, 425-388-6462

Alaska Native Plant Society

Idaho Native Plant Society
Native Plant Society of Oregon
Washington Native Plant Society

For more information about this and other topics in Beneficial Landscaping, contact Elaine Somers at 206-553-2966, 800-424-4372, or Or, visit our website at

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