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Editor's Note

This is the first in a series of articles written by Alex Bisso about finding and collecting cottonwood bark. The articles will be presented over the next several issues of WOM. The subject of this first installment, although more mundane then the parts that will follow, is nonetheless very important information.


Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark

By Alex Bisso


Part I - Obtaining Legal Access to Property and Permission to Collect

The following information is the result of my many years of collecting cottonwood bark, mostly in Montana but some in northern Wyoming as well. 

There are many locations where special permission is not required to explore the land for bark potential.  These places include:

  • Public (State or Federal) lands

  • State, county and municipal parks

  • Wildlife management areas, often purchased from private landowners, by State or Federal Wildlife management agencies and set aside to provide managed wildlife habitat and public hunting opportunities. 

  • Block management areas which involve an agreement between the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners to allow access to land for hunting deer, upland game birds, etc.  Some of these only require signing in at access locations but some require contacting the landowners.  Landowners participating in this program receive a small fee (likely paid from hunting license revenues) for each person who accesses the land during the covered season. Access to these private lands is only provided during the hunting seasons for which the area is managed for hunting each year and then the access is allowed for hunters. Of course it is OK to look for large dead cottonwood trees while doing that. Whether it be for deer or upland game bird hunting, one should go and scout the area as a hunter. I have gone a number of times with my son who is a bird hunter and found some good trees in this manner. Then it is easy to call the landowner, let him know that you saw the dead tree while hunting and ask for permission to go back and collect the bark for wood carving.

In all of these areas it is important to recognize that the permission allowed to access the area does not include permission to collect bark or other wood from that area.  In fact sometimes any collecting is specifically prohibited.  In most of these areas I feel comfortable picking up a few nice pieces of bark when I am checking the area out.  However, before going in the area to collect a large amount of bark I make a practice of and strongly recommend contacting the landowner or land management personnel to obtain specific permission to do the collection.  Sometimes this requires a number of phone calls to eventually find the person who has the authority to grant you the permission you need to collect.  The state, county and city parks usually have someone equivalent to a park superintendent who is responsible for one or many such parks.  Since the land in block management areas is privately owned, it is the landowner's permission to collect that is needed. 

For state and federal lands, including wildlife management areas, etc. it could take a number of calls to find the individual who is responsible for management of the area.  This would likely be someone like a state or federal wildlife biologist who lives somewhere near the area.  A good place to start calling is the closest regional office of the agency which manages the land where you want to collect. 

Note that many public lands in Montana now have signs which say "no wood cutting" and while I could technically argue that collecting bark from dead trees does not involve any wood "cutting" I would not be comfortable collecting a whole Blazer or utility trailer full of bark without specifically obtaining permission to do so.  Having permission brings great piece of mind and assures that a good collecting area is not put at risk.
When privately owned land is involved it is important to get landowner permission both before you go on the property to scout promising areas and before you go on the land to collect bark – each time.  When I get permission to check private land for thick bark, I normally bring along an example piece of bark, and perhaps a bark carving, to show the landowner what I am looking for, and I let them know why their property is of interest (bones, dead trees, very large trees, etc.).  I also ask them where they suggest I look.  I normally like to do my first scouting on foot but some ranches are so large that asking them about available access roads is a good idea.  If I find good bark I then go back to the landowner and exchange contact information and make tentative plans to come back on a collecting trip. Sometimes I also get permission to go and
collect some of the bark right then in addition to making plans to come back
at a later date to collect more if it is available.  

Compensation – I have not yet had to pay cash to collect bark but to maintain good relations with the landowner I always give them a nice, finished bark carving when I find and get permission to collect bark from their property.  If I do not have a carving to give them on my scouting trip I always bring one when I return to do the collecting.  Some landowners have 3-4 of my bark carvings and I have developed some good friends and relationships in this manner.   Even after years of friendship with a landowner, my practice is to never go on their land unless I obtain their permission for that specific trip.

It should be mentioned that it is a good practice to visit with or at least call the landowner on the way out of his property to let him know that you are safe and leaving their property, and that you closed any gates, etc. that you needed to go through.  I also like to give a small carved-egg Santa or Christmas tree ornament, or possibly just a card or cookies, to landowners that I visit repeatedly. 

In the next installment: Finding Cottonwood Bark - or What To Look For

Here's a peek at what's ahead:

Fallen tree

Click for a larger image. To give you an idea of scale, note the top of the vehicle in the background.

Vary Large Tree

Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bisso is a woodcarver, and collector and seller of cottonwood bark and other found wood. To view some of Alex's carvings and cottonwood bark suppl at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.


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