How to Live in the Woods

If you are reading this, you have acquired land in the country, or plan to do so. Congratulations! The area is unsurpassed for a quieter, cleaner life style than is available to a vast majority of people.

Here are suggestions which are based on many years of close observation of the uses and abuses of land. What you can do with your land is practically unrestricted by law at this time; if you want to keep it this way, it is essential that you regard yourself as a land steward with a breath-taking responsibility for the care of a very special place. Hand in hand with the beauty of the area is its fragile nature; when you purchase undeveloped land your are assuming the care and stewardship of a fragile, delicately balanced ecological system, in which all life survives only as long as a reasonable balance is maintained.

1. Preserve your ground cover! When the vegetative cover is gone, the soil will follow. Native ground cover requires a minimum of water; most ornamental ground cover brought in to replace the native cover requires considerably more water, which will become increasingly scarce. Ask your nursery specialist about suitable species.

2. Think at least twice before removing any tree or bush; be sure that the result is what you want. The vegetation not only protects the soil and provides natural air conditioning, but it is THE HABITAT for a myriad of living creatures. A MAJOR threat to all wildlife is habitat destruction, and vegetation IS habitat. Careful preservation of the habitat will allow you to harbor an amazing number of wild things, and will give you considerable satisfaction over your voluntary contribution to wildlife welfare. The plant which to an inexperienced eye is just another weed, thorn bush, or vine is EVERYTHING to the birds and animals. That unsightly dead tree which the new land owner is eager to remove is a fertile supply of insects and nesting spots for birds. Remember the extinct giant ivory-billed woodpecker! It became extinct because the forests were "cleaned up," and the dead trees which contained its nesting holes were destroyed. Extensive use of non-native plants may not substitute as habitat for local animals, no matter how attractive. Habitat for a koala bear may not be habitat for a white tail deer.

3. If your improvements involve any alteration of the ground surface, consider carefully the final appearance of your lot, AND the altered drainage which may result in rapid destruction of your topsoil. Landowners have, to their later sorrow, excavated a hillside to allow flat slab construction. Your architect and builder can design and build your home to conform to the natural features of your building site. If you can construct your home without alteration of slope, you will probably happier, and your resale value will be higher. Your land may contain areas of exposed stone ledges. Excessive operation of heavy equipment can destroy the beauty of rock formations which are the result of thousands of years of gradual change.

4. Even the most conservative clearing will give you a large brush pile. It will become the happy home of many forms of wildlife: there, please DO NOT BURN IT! If you do, you will find that you have destroyed wildlife homes AND wildlife as well. You can probably find a place on your land where the pile presents no fire danger to your home. Before starting clearing, arrange with your contractor for the best location for your habitat pile. You will be surprised how fast it will decay and replenish the topsoil. In the meantime, the raccoons, birds, and other wild creatures will thank you for it.

5. Every creature has a place in the ecological balance. If you feel that there are "good" and "bad" varieties of wildlife, you may be happier in a city where there are no varieties at all. Some require more respect than others, but they all need your care.

6. And last: Carefully preserve your corner boundary markers. Do not remove! This is the only suggestion which will not make a difference to the wildlife or the land, but it will make a difference to you!


©2004 Charles R. Swart
Illustrations by Dana Steinheimer

The Best Kept Secrets in Montana Surveying Law
Curtis M. Brown, Land Surveyor and Author
How to Live in the Woods
Land Boundary Monuments, Past and Present