Legal to cut trees blocking a river

-- Last Updated: Nov-11-14 6:11 PM EST --

Anyone have insights on the legality of cutting fallen trees that are blocking a navigable river?

A recent snowstorm here in Maine took down thousands and thousands of trees, many of which are now blocking previously paddle-able rivers.

(Note: These are rivers through privately owned forest lands -- not residential areas).

Using loppers to clear a path through an alder thicket, while still seated in a canoe is one thing. Standing in shallow water and trimming branches that open up a passage is probably another. Going ashore and using a chainsaw to cut off the tree trunk right at the edge of the river is probably another.

Yeah, I know I should probably consult the landowners -- but tracking all of them down would be a lot of work in itself.

The only online discussion of this I have found so far is at: People talk about the conflicting interests of the landowner who owns the trees vs. those of the boater who has a right to navigate the waterway.

I don’t know the law, but…
as far as I am concerned you would have no right to be on the landowners property cutting wood without his permission.

How would you feel if you were that landowner?

Jack L

I’d wait till freeze up

– Last Updated: Nov-11-14 6:31 PM EST –

go in with a chainsaw and unblock the river. That is if its one you have paddled before.

Chances are the landowners would thank you. You must be east of Augusta. We got nothing.

Rivers in Maine are all publicly owned. Lakes too are property of the State. Shoreland is of course mostly private.

I'd make some effort to contact landowners if you see a habitable structure nearby. Otherwise as you say its tough to id landowners.

The Saco routinely requires blowdown clearance and its all a public waterway bordered by private land.

Meanwhile I would try to talk to the IF&W Warden in your area re the legalities. It brings the issue into clarity and proves you are hiding nothing.

If I’m the landowner
I would be thankful someone was doing my work for me and invite them in for a beer.

I understand Jack’s point,
but I’ve cut a lot of blockages. Some were on private land, most are on state land. I’d certainly not set foot on the bank and cut, but from the boat, yes. It may not be legal. If the landowner wants that dead branch, I’d sure be happy to have the help!


unless you’re a fisherman
…and those limbs provide cover and habitat.

landowner and river

– Last Updated: Nov-11-14 6:51 PM EST –

Some states have natural or scenic river designations which may place limits on the amount of downfall removed. I'm not sure what the federal government says about rivers in wilderness areas. I know we're talking about dead trees here but some people get carried away and don't think about the consequences when it comes to "clearing".

Otherwise I'd check with the landowner instead of assuming his or her priorities are the same as yours. If you know the river well enough you may be able to identify the owner from an overhead map through online resources (equalization departments for example). Once you trespass and cut, you can't undo it.

My buddy in Newburgh got 16 inches and lost power for a day and a half. Caught them all by surprise.

I hear you . . .

– Last Updated: Nov-11-14 8:05 PM EST –

But, on the other hand, we have a lot of rivers in Maine that could be rendered unnavigable by landowners -- if those landowners were averse to boaters and if there is no requirement that the landowner cut or allow cutting of blockages and strainers.

I am hoping there are some laws (including common sense ones) protecting the rights of boaters here.

These aren't just tiny rivers either. In some cases, it is a 60 - 80 foot pine entirely blocking a river channel.

Again I would talk to the local Warden
Downed trees in a particular area may be deemed valuable for fish habitat or may not be so ruled.

I have found Maine Wardens to be commonsense people with no power ego. They know the economic benefits of paddlers using the waterways. Same for zoning compliance officers that sometimes notice our clearing of dead trees in shoreland zones. the dead trees being on the shoreline itself (I am in Maine)

Read down here to the second paragraph

all the cutting in my parts stays below
the radar or it doesn’t get done. You’ll be amazed how much stuff gets moved out of the way with some high water. Two years ago southern wv got a double whammy- a derechio in June with strong winds and Super Storm Sandy featured wet snow in the end of October . The main approach was to use caution and share information with other boaters. Two years after Sandy 80% of the streams and creeks are clear. The smallest creeks are still impacted. For about a year I kept a web page to help keep folks abreast of the situation. Much better now, and haven’t bothered to keep it updated. How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?

you are planning on doing any cutting. It would be a good idea to have the WRITTEN OK from an entity like the DNR. that states you have permission to cut.

Rivers considered navigable are under some agency control{not sure which one in Main, could be dept of the interior} …You are not that agency and would beyond any doubt need permission …It has never been left to just any individual on their own to decide cutting should or needs to be done. Way too much varied opinion among individuals…if this is a major clearing sometimes a contract is issued…

Best Wishes


Thanks for the recommendation that I talk to a warden, and thanks also for the link. I hadn’t thought of the ecological value of downed limbs and trees. Regarding the Watershed Wisdom document you linked to, in this case, many of these trees are definitely a hazard to navigation – and many are safety hazards as well. I didn’t specifically mention it before but I am talking rivers with Class 1 - 3 whitewater, (as well as flatwater) here.

Snags are also a hazard
that can trap canoes and kayaks with very bad outcomes in fast waters


Be careful what your creativity does. It’s not just the “3 S’s” saw, shove, and saunter off… if you drop a really big ø log into the water, it shifts to the middle of the channel, the top edge is only submerged a few inches, and it then has nasty things on it that makes a sieve or a strainer, you just made more problems. You can put it up on the river bank and the thing could still shift and fall back in during a storm event. But perhaps the landowners would be interested in a nice stack of firewood as a trade off for access ?

If there is a lot more snow this winter, then these fallen trees create a lot of flooding this spring from catching debris during thaw runoff, acting as natural dams, then landowners may get motivated to do something or at least enjoy the thought of somebody else doing something.

good advice to heed
Start with the regulatory agency.

Easier 2 ask forgiveness than permission
Up where I come from if you had to ask permission to clear a tree from a waterway or a trail it would never get done in your lifetime. The accepted local practice was to cut just enough to make your way through and keep your mouth shut about what you did. A 30" Bahco bow saw will quietly cut through 8-10" of wood without much fuss.

What rivers are you talking of?
We routinely cut the Ossipee in Western Maine with no hassle. IF we didn’t to make it safe no one would do it.

We also cut when a pine falls into the lake blocking access or making access unsafe, even though the water is State owned.

Generally Maine is a pretty common sense state. Did you know that unless the land is posted it is legal to cross it to get to a body of water?

I think I now understand
the fishing community’s and the preservationist community’s general distrust of the paddling community.

I often think of the fishing community…
as I’m loading up my boat with all the trash they left behind.

Two weeks ago prior to the big snowstorm
the trees were not in the river. Now they are. So we should leave them?

Lets put it a little differently. Two weeks ago trees were not all over the road. Because they can provide good cover for wildlife we should leave them. Now really does that make any sense at all?

Next time you have a hurricane… leave everything where it lies. Big snows have the same effect.