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Mulchers chew through forests

POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. -- Engine revving, the odd-looking little machine plunged into a patch of thick brush.

Its carbide-tipped teeth tore apart everything it touched. In seconds, it turned 75 square feet of tangled saplings, briers, vines and stumps into earth-nourishing mulch.

"See?" said Kem Shaw, standing a safe distance from the mayhem. "With this, we'll be able to clear a lot of new wildlife habitat in not a lot of time."

A casual observer might not look at a patch of freshly cleared ground and see wildlife habitat, but Shaw and other biologists do.

"Right now, almost everywhere in the state, we need more fresh green growth," said Shaw, an assistant district wildlife biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources.

"Almost all our [forests in state-operated wildlife management areas] are in what we call 'older stages of succession,' which is actually poor habitat for a lot of wildlife species. To create better habitat, we plan to cut a little timber and open up some underbrush."

That's where the brush-eating machines come in. Called "forest mulchers," the 6-ton beasts can clear acres of dense growth in a matter of hours. DNR officials have purchased two of them and plan to move them around the state to be used where they're most needed.

"One is being kept in Braxton County, and the other is being kept here [at the McClintic Wildlife Management Area]," Shaw said.

If the mulchers look a lot like small skid-steer excavators, it's because they are. But where an excavator would have a hydraulically powered bucket, the mulchers have hydraulically powered ripper heads, similar to those used on continuous mining machines.

The heads are solid-steel cylinders that spin at hundreds of revolutions each minute. Dozens of hardened carbide teeth, arrayed symmetrically around the spinning cylinders, shred everything they touch.

"They can tear down and mulch anything up to trees 8 inches in diameter," Shaw said.

In the past, DNR wildlife managers cleared undergrowth with standard tractors equipped with "brush hog" attachments.

"[The mulchers] beat the heck out of brush hogs," said Dave McClung, the wildlife manager at McClintic. "They can get into places a brush hog can't go, and they can knock down much larger and heavier growth.

"The mulchers also are safer. The operator sits in an enclosed cab, protected from flying debris and from the swarms of bees you get when you stumble onto a hornet's nest. The cab is air-conditioned, too, which is a nice change from what we're used to." 

McClung said the $70,000 machines will come in particularly handy at overgrown WMAs like McClintic, where impenetrable stands of multiflora rose dominate the landscape.

"Multiflora rose looks all nice and lush, but if you look closely, there's nothing green underneath it," he explained. "If we open up those areas currently in multiflora rose, we'll get regrowth with blackberries, greenbrier and other native [foods] that wildlife use."

McClung said the mulchers also would be used at the Cornstalk WMA, located in Mason County just a few miles from McClintic; on the woodcock enhancement area at Cabell County's Green Bottom WMA; and at Wayne County's Beech Fork WMA.

"The first places we'll target are places where we've had more brush than we've had time to cut," he said. "We'll use it at other places, too, once we get a truck and trailer to haul it around. It's too heavy to pull with our current equipment.

"We'll get more productive with it as we learn to use it better. The [equipment] company sent people out to brief us on maintenance and operation, but we'll need to spend more time on it before we learn to use it really effectively."

McClung said he got to witness the mulchers' full capabilities first-hand when a contractor used them to clear power-line rights of way on the McClintic grounds.

"Those guys took those things into places I didn't think they'd go," he said. "I don't know if we'll ever be that good with them, but with practice we'll definitely learn what we can and can't do."

Shaw believes it's only a matter of time before hunters start seeing the fruits of the DNR's work.

"We have some big plans for these things," he said. "Give us a year and see what we've done."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231, or email johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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