[Guide Series] Part 2: Understanding the Methods & Cost of Clearing Land

[Guide Series] Part 2: Understanding the Methods & Cost of Clearing Land
By: Cactus Creek

The words kind of give away what land clearing means, right? For sure. But there is a little more to it. Clearing land is the intentional process of moving or mulching trees, brush, rock, and other debris from an area of ground. The area is generally at least an acre but can run into the thousands of acres for infrastructure right-of-way clearing, pipeline clearing, and vegetation management on large ranches. Heavy equipment is nearly always deployed to the property.

Land clearing by mulching is newer but it's the commonly preferred approach for efficiently tackling overgrowth in a visually pleasing way. Cedar mulching can be done year-round, has a low risk of wildfire, and nutrients in the mulch are recycled in the area. The process generally doesnʼt require permitting and the land is immediately usable upon completion.

Cedar Mulching (aka Forestry Mulching):

Description: Uses wheeled and tracked mulching machines to shred trees and brush into small pieces. Aka forestry mulching, this method of land clearing to mulch cedar, brush, and other woody vegetation. It produces cedar mulch, shredded brush, and other organic material that is normally left in place to benefit the cleared area of land. Cedar mulching is highly efficient and can be used for both general and selective clearing plans.

What You Should Know: cedar mulching is a relatively newer approach to land clearing and is routinely picked over traditional clearing due to its speed, precision, and overall affordability

Pros: precision, improves the health of an ecosystem, minimal secondary equipment needed

Cons: often billed by the hour, uses specialized equipment

Variations: centralize, spread out in rows, then mulch; utilize excavator to pick off hillside; use hand crew

Traditional Clearing (aka Dozer Clearing): 

Description: Using bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and other equipment to pile trees and remove them from an area or later burn. Dozers topple and push out trees while excavators load them into dump trucks for removal. Traditional clearing is used for general clearing projects.

What You Should Know: traditional land clearing leaves you with piles to burn or a bigger invoice for removal/disposal, so be sure to address that upfront

Pros: scalable service levels

Cons: requires more time, or work+money, to return the property to a natural appearance

Variations: burn pit, tub to burn/mulch

Chemical Clearing:

Description: Applying herbicides and other chemicals toxic to kill trees, brush, and other vegetation. Using herbicides to clear land is a nominally intrusive and effective method of clearing certain types of vegetation. However, the chemicals may negatively impact the soil, water, plants, and animals. Decomposition can take decades to complete based on the targeted vegetation species and maturity, as well as local weather and regional climate.

What You Should Know: may require a permit or license and may harm animals

Pros: doesnʼt disturb property appearance

Cons: slow process and risky to flora and fauna alike

Variations: n/a

Hand Crew Clearing (aka Chainsaw Crew):

Description: Using manpower to operate chainsaws and other small equipment to remove overgrown cedar and other types of brush. A manual crew can remove cedar underbrush that grows below the canopy of a hardwood tree (like an oak or pecan) without damaging it. Using a hand crew also permits the scope of a land clearing project to extend and include very steep terrain, dense clusters, or forests of hardwood trees.

What You Should Know: very common to use a chainsaw crew in combination with cedar mulching and traditional land clearing approaches

Pros: extremely precise, no disturbance to property appearance

Cons: slow

Variations: used with other methods as a supplement

Factors Influencing the Cost of Land Clearing

First, the cost to clear one acre of your neighbor’s property may be different than yours. There’s project-specific cost variables, company-specific cost variables, and market (macro) cost variables.

Project-Specific Cost Variables

Good land-clearing contractors often (but not always) need to see the property before giving a quote or estimate — do it. To avoid any delay or dispute over the cost of your clearing job, a full agreement is a must and depends on the clearing company actually seeing what theyʼre going to clear.

That is because there’s more to pricing than the size of the property. For by-the-hour jobs, a contractor’s employees can make or break the project. While an excellent operator of a cedar mulching machine can consistently deliver premium results, an inexperienced operator may get bogged down in difficult terrain and dense growth. In some cases, it may lead to the contractor either billing way higher than quoted (or estimated, if by the hour). In other cases, it may lead to a drop in the quality of service to move quicker and maintain a profit (if flat-bid). Of course, a great land clearing company will call you to address the problem and the best step forward.

Pricing is a critical component of running a land-clearing company, so theyʼll want to understand:

  • Method of Land Clearing
  • Terrain
  • Type of Targeted Vegetation Accessibility
  • Size of Land/Acres to Clear

Company-Specific Cost Variables

As we will discuss in Part 3, there are big differences between a great land clearing company and the local guy with a skid steer that will clear your brush. If you want a company that invests in people, systems, and its future, know that they will cost more. Items such as insurance, branded uniforms, routine maintenance of equipment, training expenses, etc. all are cost-centers for a land clearing company—but they usually support the delivery of better, dependable service.

Market Cost Variables

Certain market conditions will raise prices, such as rises in fuel costs and insurance. It’s likely that in these environments, you’re already feeling the same pain in other areas; for example, automotive liability insurance premiums have risen north of 20% in the last year alone. These variables affect companies and individuals alike.

Generally speaking, clearing land in the Texas Hill Country is not cheap and some of the best contractors will run anywhere from a $1500 to $3000 per acre (just a ball park, often above and below). If you get quotes under $1,000 per acre, you should ask yourself if its too good to be true. We’ve seen property owners decline higher rate land clearing companies and go with the local brush clearing guy with a skid steer, but there’s a reason why he’s cheap and they’re expensive…

Read Part 3 of this Guide Series to find out.