Reading Your Boundaries

Illustrations by Joseph Smith

Before the trees leaf out is a great time to walk your property lines, a practice that should be an annual event for all landowners. Locating property boundaries often requires the ability to read and interpret signs left in the woods. Semi-permanent marks on tree and rock, piles of stones, and old gun barrels driven into the ground are some of the means that have been employed over the years to keep boundaries visible.

Blazing and painting boundary trees is a common method of marking woodlot boundaries. These marks, made by cutting out a 4- to 6-inch-square section of bark down to the wood, can remain visible for decades. The durability of a tree blaze depends upon the size and health of the tree that was blazed and the size and depth of the blaze. A healthy tree can grow new bark over a blaze in 10 to 15 years, but evidence of the blaze will remain on the tree’s bark for many decades.

A single blaze at about eye level is used to indicate a property line; two blazes mean a change in direction along a property line; and three blazes signify a corner. Sometimes the bark will be slashed 3 or 4 inches above and below the blaze to distinguish a property line from a blazed trail.

Along property lines, trees within 10 feet of the line on either side are blazed, with the blaze placed on the side of the tree that faces the line. If the line passes through a tree the blazes would be placed on both sides of the tree where the line intersects the trunk.

“Witness trees” are used to mark property corners. These are usually large, healthy trees growing within 20 feet of the corner. Witness trees are given three blazes on the side of the tree facing the corner, and the azimuth and distance from each tree to the corner is recorded by the surveyor.

The actual corner marker may be an iron pipe, a gun barrel, or a rod driven into the earth or into a stone wall, or a pile of stones, a cement post, or marks on stone. Although these are intended to be permanent, they can be lost or become hard to find without the witness trees. Rocks can be moved, leaves or vegetation can cover pipes, a tree might blow down and take the corner with it, or vandals may remove the marker.

Although stone walls will not necessarily mark a boundary, property corners will sometimes fall on a wall. In these cases, look for unnatural markings on the stones, such as drill holes, or for stakes or pipes driven into the wall. When a wall does follow a property line, trees along the wall will usually be blazed.

Other evidence you may use to identify boundaries includes piles of stones (sometimes with a stake driven into the middle of them), wire or the remnants of wire or wooden fences (old posts or rails), brushed-out lines (the stumps of small trees or shrubs may remain visible for twenty years or more), or a noticeable change in forest type or land use.

Witness and blazed boundary trees should be preserved, as should their blazes. Do not cut open old blazes, because they provide historical evidence of the boundary that could be lost if you alter them. Instead, make new blazes above or below the old ones. Do not make any new permanent marks yourself unless you have the boundary located by a registered surveyor and you have consulted your neighbors.

Tricks of the Trade is provided courtesy of the Forest and Wood Products Institute at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts.

  1. melissa charest → in troy, new york
    Dec 17, 2015

    Very useful article, having spent the last several months on my farm rewalking the forested boundaries with my survey. I saw all of the things you wrote about. Now is my chance to do some blazing.

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