Standards and Procedures:
Regularly clearing vegetation from trail corridors is a fairly simple task that is accessible to everyone from the individual maintainer or trail adopter to large groups of volunteers. While it’s a simple task, its importance cannot be ignored. Furthermore, given the long growing season and ample rainfall in the Pisgah, brushing is a task that needs to be done continuously and consistently. A lack of brushing, aside from making trails unsightly and uncomfortable for users, can also contribute to resource damage when encroaching vegetation from the uphill side of the trail pushes trail users to travel on the fragile outside edge of the trail. In this way, poor brushing maintenance can gradually lead to tread creep and erosion problems. Likewise, a lack of brushing can lead to unsafe conditions, especially for mountain bikers, if the line of sight is obstructed or the corridor too narrow.
So, regular brushing maintenance is essential for our trails. Not only is it essential to do it, but it’s important to do it well. While it’s much simpler than building structure or installing drainage, there are some tricks and standards for brushing that will lead to more aesthetically pleasing trails as well as better investment of resources. These key points are detailed in this document.
- Cut woody vegetation back aggressively on the uphill side of sidehill trails. As a general rule, if you can reach out with your arm and touch woody vegetation while standing on the tread, remove this vegetation. Vegetation on the uphill side is the main problem, as it encourages users to travel on the edge of the trail and eventually leads to tread creep.
- Leave most of the woody vegetation on the downhill side of sidehill trails, cutting it back only enough to prevent it from directly encroaching into the treadway, or trapping water. Vegetation on the downhill side of a sidehill trail can help to push users up and away from the fragile edge, which helps prevent tread creep.
- Clear vegetation to an equal distance on both sides of trail in relatively level terrain, without moderate to steep side slopes (for example, the Pink Beds Loop). Within 1 foot of the edge of the tread, plant material and debris should be cleared all the way to the ground.
- Don’t forget to clear overhead vegetation as well. On hiking and biking trails, clear anything that hangs over the treadway up to about 8ft high.
- On equestrian trails, clear vegetation hanging over the treadway 10-12 feet high (12 preferable). This may be impossible without a pole saw, or actually riding a horse to do the brushing with loppers (being sure you have a mount that is not prone to spook).
- Exact specifications vary based on Trail Class. For information and resources see the Trail Class Specifications page.
- Use loppers to remove woody vegetation and branches up to 1” in diameter.
- Use folding saws to remove woody vegetation and branches over 1” in diameter.
- Using motorized brushcutters can be effective for clearing large stretches of woody vegetation, generally not much bigger than 1” in diameter.
- For softer-stemmed, non-woody vegetation that dies back and regrows every year, use swing blades or motorized brushcutters.
- Aesthetics should be kept in mind while brushing. It shouldn’t be wildly obvious to the passing trail user that the trail has been brushed.
- Whenever possible, cut branches at the collar - this is aesthetically subtle and least damaging to the tree as it promotes effective healing.
- Don’t leave partially cut stems, stobs, branches, etc. sticking into the trail. These create unsightly, potential dangerous “punji sticks.”
- When cutting smaller woody vegetation like saplings and shrubs, cut them all the way to the ground. Don’t leave stobs sticking up on the sides of the trail.
- When cutting back branches, cut them at a joint in the branch or else remove the entire branch back to the collar.
- When limbing with a hand saw make a shallow undercut first, then follow with the top cut. This allows for a clean cut and prevents the limb from peeling bark off the tree as it falls.
- Strive to hide the impact of your work from trail users. Seeing a lot of rough or sloppy maintenance work can be distracting to users, taking away from their wilderness experience.
- Take care that piled brush is not preventing water from draining off the trail.
- Toss or drag larger branches and brush considerably off the trail. Stash out of sight or behind rocks if possible.
- Spread cuttings so they contact the ground as much as possible. This promotes decomposition. Avoid tall brush piles as these will decompose more slowly.
- Toss or drag brush with the cut side away from the trail. This hides the cut from trail users and makes brush appear more natural.
- If necessary, in very heavy brush and rhododendron, you can cut a “window” on the downhill side of the trail to make a place to stash cuttings.
- For larger cuts, such as removing a full branch from a tree, consider rubbing dirt into the freshly exposed cut on the trunk, as this darkens the color and makes it appear aged and less obvious.
- Don’t make the mistake of piling brush in the conveniently open space of a drain. Keep drains free of all debris, cuttings included. Also be sure to broadcast cutting far enough downhill from the trail to prevent buildup of the berm. Don’t let brush impede the proper functioning of drainage features.
- Cuts made at joints
- Branches cut back to the collar
- Impacts hidden
- Corridor widened appropriately
- Aggressive clearing of woody vegetation on uphill side
- Stobs, “punji sticks”, “hat racks”
- Cuttings stacked on edges of trail
- Drains clogged with cuttings
- Visible, unsightly impacts
Tools for Brushing:
- Loppers - good for small woody vegetation 1" diameter and below
- Folding Saw - good for larger branches and saplings
- Brushcutter/Weedeater - good for herbaceous (soft-stemmed) and small woody vegetation
- Swing Blade - good for clearing herbaceous growth
- Chainsaw - larger branches and blowdowns
- Pole Saw - overhead vegetation, especially on equestrian trails
PPE for Brushing:
- All regular PPE including hard hat, boots, gloves, eye protection should be worn.
- If using chainsaws, you must be certified and must wear additional PPE including chaps and ear protection.
- If using power tools like brushcutters, ear protection should be worn. Be sure you are trained and know how to use the equipment safely.
Special PPE emphasis placed on:
- Eye Protection (working in brushy areas can expose eyes to injury from sharp branches)
- Gloves (folding saws in particular are extremely sharp and should not be used without gloves)
- USFS Trail Class Matrix - This chart explains the differences in trail class, which should help guide maintenance decisions.
- USFS Trail Class Guide - useful excerpt from the USFS Trail Fundamentals and Trail Management Objectives manual, which covers the differences between Trail Classes 1-5 and how they affect the design parameters on trails for different users. The parameters include brush clearing width and height. Also see the Pisgah Trail Academy page on Trail Class Specifications for more details.
- PRD Trail Class List - PDF list of all the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District, along with their corresponding Trail Class.