How do you deal with a tree that’s fallen into your lake?

Fallen tree

This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

How should we handle a tree that has fallen into the lake? It’s interfering with our favourite swimming spot.

—Zeke Deschamp, via email

As is usually the case, the answer is “it depends,” says Mike Yee, the environmental planner and the manager of biology and water quality with the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority in Manotick, Ont. Before you do anything at all, you’re best to make sure you don’t need a permit from your municipality or the go-ahead from a local conservation authority, environment ministry, or Parks Canada. And safety first: remove the tree if it’s a hazard. Beyond that, “you want to try to find a balance between your needs and the needs of the lake,” says Yee. “Downed woody debris is very, very good for water ecology. It provides structure, nutrients, and places for things to hide and live. It’s like an apartment building for the lake.”

How’s the health of the existing littoral ecosystem? If your shoreline is struggling (with a lot of erosion or little native vegetation), the fallen tree “will have a much more significant positive impact,” says D.G. Blair, the executive director of the Stewardship Centre for B.C.

Can you remove only part of the tree? The fish and other wildlife will get their apartment building, and you’ll still get your swimming area. Win all around! If you must get rid of it, “anything that you do by hand will be much less invasive,” says Blair. If the work requires power tools, a winch, or a backhoe, call a certified tree service company, says Mark Ellis, a senior consulting arborist with the Davey Resource Group. “You really don’t want to be leaning out of a boat, wielding a chainsaw.”

But hold up—in some areas, early spring is fish-spawning season. Your tree won’t become habitat the instant it hits the lake, so waiting until this sensitive period is over means that you won’t be stirring up silt or destroying eggs at a crucial time. It also means that you won’t be breaking the law: there are rules governing these in-water “work windows.”

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