Winter storms can break off branches and tops of trees, causing significant changes to the shoreland environment. Although a snapped hemlock or maple might seem destructive at first, the dismembered branches create new hiding places and obtainable sweet buds to feed rabbits and other small mammals. An opening in the tree canopy allows sun to penetrate to the ground, fueling new spring growth, while branches fallen in the lake provide vital shelter and food for fish and other aquatic life. Nature knows how to heal itself, but people often find it hard not to “tidy and clean up” their shorelands, even when “leaving well enough alone” is often best for water quality and habitat. Here are tips to help damaged trees recover, decide whether a tree really does need to be removed, and why you should protect your dead, standing trees.
First off, never cut off the top a tree thinking you can help it. This practice will only lead to disease and an early decay of your tree. However, if a tree is topped naturally from a storm, to help it recover, you could prune the top off to a strong lateral branch. Many topped tree species, like maples, cherries, ash, and beech trees, pruned or not, will recover with a new leader branch serving as the main trunk. White pines and birches do not do well with their main trunk topped and are likely to rot from disease within a couple of years with or without pruning help.
In accordance with the Vegetation Protection Standards established under the regulatory Shoreland Protection Act, tree branches on the bottom third of the trunk can be pruned for any reason, without obtaining a permit. If you have a damaged tree that you believe could survive if pruned differently, first check with your regional shoreland permit analyst before taking any action. The Vegetation Protection Standards apply to all plants, ground cover, and the decomposing leaf litter known as the duff layer existing within 250 feet of a lake’s mean water level. The intent of the Shoreland Protection Act is to maintain the natural conditions of shorelands, which in part, is fueled by natural recycling from storm blow down events.
What makes a tree unsafe? A tree is considered unsafe when there is high likelihood of tree part failure and it has a target, and it is up to the landowner to make this determination. For example, if your favorite white pine has grown tall enough, that if it were to snap off in a storm, it would hit your camp, then you would consider it unsafe. Shoreland Permitting’s fact sheet on Dead, Diseased, and Unsafe Trees, available on their web site, suggests to contact a tree arborist or your county forester for advice if unsure of the level of risk or likelihood of tree failure.
Although removing an unsafe tree does not require a permit under the regulatory Shoreland Protection Act, taking down a tall, shoreland tree will affect other species and site conditions which is important to understand before making a plan of action. Shoreland Permitting suggests you take and keep a photo of the unsafe tree you wish to remove in case anyone questions your decision to remove it. A loss of a tall shoreland tree reduces habitat for birds of prey like osprey, eagles, and kingfishers who nest and fish from tall branches. However, new growth and habitat conditions will emerge. For example, with less shade over the lake, shallow water temperature and aquatic plant growth could increase. At the same time, more light reaching the ground encourages young seedlings to sprout.
Once you determine that you have an unsafe tree and decide to remove it, it is highly recommended to leave the root system in place. This practice keeps the root system intact, binding the soil and preventing bank erosion. If an unsafe tree is removed and the Vegetation Protection Standards are no longer met, you are not required to replant, but if you don’t want to wait for natural succession to occur, you may enjoy the chance to plant a few favorite native species, like beautiful flowering viburnums, or favorite wildlife trees, like the black cherry, Prunus serotina. Jump starting the re-vegetation process is also helpful to avoid bank erosion. Refer to the Lake Wise Best Management Practices on Planting and Maintaining Vegetation Areas for a listing of some of the native species to choose from.
Most of the trees leaning over the bank are not threatening bank stability or considered unsafe. Leaning trees are stronger than they look and help bind the bank with their intricate root system. There are some situations when the slope exceeds 20 percent and the soils are primarily sandy that a tree could topple and take a chunk of the bank with it. Contact the Lake Wise Program or a Shoreland Permit Analyst if you need advice for specific situations.
Dead trees continue to play an important, active role in natural communities. They are teeming with life. Larval and adult insects, along with fungi and bacteria nest and feed in the chambers of dead trees. If you ask a pileated woodpecker what his favorite tree is, the answer will be a “dead one.” These totem poles along lakeshores are best left in place due to the many habitat values they provide, unless they pose an unsafe situation, in which case they can be removed without obtaining a permit under the Shoreland Protection Act.
To learn more about how to best manage your shores with ecologically responsible practices, visit the Lake Wise Program. And also, for more information about Shoreland Permitting visit the Lakes and Ponds Program web pages.
Forest Lessons Learned
from the 1998 Great Northeast Ice Storm
1. The North Eastern Research Center’s study, Tree Survival and Growth Following Ice Storm Injury determined tree survival, stem growth, and response to infection following injury to major hardwood tree species from the 1998 ice storm. The findings showed incredible natural resiliency to storm damage and that pruning and clearing as well as no action taken to improve damaged forests both resulted in healthy forest recovery from storm damage.
2. Steven Faccio from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science published a report on the 1998 ice storm’s short-term effects on breeding birds, Effects of Ice Storm-created Gaps of Forest Breeding Bird Communities in Central Vermont, where he discovered that birds responded the same to the ice storm’s natural forest disturbance as they do to selective forest management practices.