Legal to cut trees blocking a river

Related to that, …

– Last Updated: Nov-12-14 2:03 PM EST –

... I saw a presentation which referred to the results of a study conducted on certain lakes in northern Wisconsin. They found that the modern style of shoreline "improvement" on cottage properties creates a near-desert environment, compared to what's the case if even a few dead trees are left in the water. Years ago, the owners of weekend cabins would typically install a dock but not make any changes to the shoreline. Modern cabin owners turn the property into a mowed-grass lawn, and they want the shoreline to be absolutely manicured, but that natural shoreline cover is crucial to the health of the lake.

By the way, I'm not speaking out against clearing a path on a river, just reinforcing the notion that large-scale "cleaning" is a bad thing.

gee. did I say that?

– Last Updated: Nov-12-14 2:35 PM EST –

I can't remember. It was such a long post. Let's go back and check:

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

Nope, I guess I actually didn't. Nor did I before that, when I answered the original question by saying it would be best to check with either the regulatory agency, or to check with the property owner.

So, which of those two messages do you have a problem with?

Look at the first response after I posted my comment about the fishing community. Now tell me this guy has any understanding of what he's doing when he advocates cutting now and asking for forgiveness later. Then, follow the thread upstream to see where someone else said they had never considered the habitat benefits of downed or hanging limbs. So, reading both of those posts, any other user of the river should be assured that all paddlers know the consequences of clearing downfall without permission. Right?

I could give you example after example of how paddler ignorance has damaged fishing habitat. Or how fisherman ignorance has daamaged fish habitat. But if I did, I'd ask you to sign a disclaimer first to not take it as a personal insult. Because all I am saying is that people ought to think about the consequences of their actions beyond the personal benefit to them and their perceived "rights".

Is this about flooding and property damage, or do think you're entitled to trespass and/or ignore regulatory agencies to ensure your recreational use of a publicly owned resource? You didn't say that? then I'm not sure what your objection is.

I'm not familiar with how things are in Maine, but where I live, rivers serve other functions besides paddling or even recreation.

I hate it when
groups that should be aligned with one another start fighting.

As a river fisherman…
I think it all boils down to restraint, which means doing the absolutely least amount of cutting necessary. Here in Missouri, the canoe rental people do most of the cutting so that their renters can make it down the rivers without complaining too much about having to drag over or around trees or almost drowning when they get swept into a tree, but they only cut passageways around the tree if it’s all the way across the river, or occasionally they’ll cut out a particularly dangerous strainer.

Downed trees ARE very important habitat for various fish and other organisms, so definitely most of them should be left in the river. And I have a deep-seated aversion to cutting them all out in the interest of “safety”. A wild river shouldn’t be like a ride at Disneyland, and should have some natural difficulties. But if there are far more downed trees than you’d normally find, due to some kind of storm going through, then cutting out enough of them to make the river barely passable seems to me to be okay.

And by the way, clearing the channel to reduce flooding isn’t necessarily a good idea, either. It only channels the flood water downstream faster and it piles up on some other poor sucker’s property, and in the meantime the much faster current often causes more bank erosion. A moderate amount of downed trees is far better for the river than a completely cleared channel.

I just don’t understand where
the fishermen came in. Honestly I don’t know which stream is being referred to. We have a lot of different sorts of river systems in the US and what applies to one doesn’t to another.

Trees down often here occur because of heavy snow or ice jams in the spring… There are not many flood plains.

I understand that trees form fish habitat but in Maine there is no shortage of trees in the river that don’t impede navigation.

Moreover not knowing what river is involved the stream might not be used for fishing aside from at road crossings which are sometimes few and miles apart.

Anyway I would like to know what IF&W said.

why is that surprising to you?

– Last Updated: Nov-13-14 11:40 AM EST –

I'm being sincere: Unless you're not a habitat expert, how would you know what downfall means for fish habitat? And FWIW I really was getting at fish habitat.

I'm surprised that anyone thinks they should know all of this.

The guy asked a general question about a specific river. He was told to check with property owners before cutting on private property, and with a regulatory agency presuming there is one. What surprises me is that such a reasonable suggestion is met with such disagreement. Perhaps the stream isn't a high quality habitat and you can cut to your heart's content. Who do you think might be able to answer that question? The regulatory agency.

I'm sorry, I know you didn't do this, but flippant responses to questions such as this indicate to me that some people are completely unaware of their impacts. And it's just weird to me that some people are so conflict-averse they'd rather trespass or risk breaking a law, than pick up a phone or ring a doorbell.

My 2 cents worth…
I don’t knowingly trespass on private property.

I don’t take saws, axes, chainsaws, etc with me when I go paddling. Consequently, I don’t do any cutting of trees, either on the river bank or in the river.

I go over, under, or around the obstacles I encounter. Whatever is there is still going to be there after I’ve moved on downstream.

I do try to warn paddlers in my group of what I think may be a hazard to their safety, “before” they encounter the hazard.

One concern I have is some (wanna be Paul Bunyan) who doesn’t know what they’re doing; making the situation worse than it was before they started.


law library
find your local law library, University, State College, Court House…with a Westlaw computer connection.

Westlaw uses a natural language search process. You can search your location for navigable rivers statutes and legal precedents.

The major canoe club has a legal eagle.

Navigable rivers
This one is simple. Show respect for landowners and clear the trees when you can. No self-respecting LEO or game warden is going to give you a hard time about removing a safety hazard.

is that no LEO or anyone else is going to give an average citizen the power to decide on their own what exactly constitutes a safety hazard…and allow them to just go and cut on any river at their whim…the landowners own the wood…respect. Get permission. don’t end up in court because of the internet and people that wish they controlled that which they don’t. There are laws for a reason…if in fact, this is a safety issue, then I’m sure the authorized people should be made aware and insured people will deal with it…you risk an awful lot by being a solo cutter on others property with no authorization and a saw.

you’re advocating criminal activity
I’m not sure you understand that you don’t actually have the right to make a river more navigable.

Habitat did not need to be added to
immensely. The fishing was probably as good as it gets before.

Not advocating removal of more than is necessary to get the formerly navigable stream navigable again

Yes I majored in biology. Yes I do live in the area of the streams involved though it was a fairly big area of mid and Eastern Maine hit by the snow ( the storm yesterday was nothing in comparison).

The news cast last night thanked those that had cleared debris on their own without waiting for the State or the towns to haul it away; thereby saving money and labour that currently needs to be doing other things.

I’m not being flip. If around here a tree comes down you clear it. There is no they… as in “they clear it”. Of course its prudent to ask the landowner as many heat by wood. This years down pile could be next years fuel for said landowner.

And I am certainly not advocating clearcutting as that is uncalled for.

interesting article that presents both sides of the argument…

Maine fisheries are being decimated by ocean warming… so the potential effect of trees down would seem to be less significant.

ok. ask permission from property owners

– Last Updated: Nov-14-14 4:52 PM EST –

and check with regulatory agencies. So now we agree. And those really aren't tall tasks. But fisheries being decimated by ocean warming should indicate a greater need to protect our fisheries, don't you think?

It just bothers me to see some yahoo say "better to ask for forgiveness than permission" or "I'll give them the branch if they want it". People get protective of their property and will do plenty to manifest that. Not to defend it but it can get dangerous. Also, imagine how you'd feel if you weren't a boater, your mind was elsewhere and some stranger showed up on your property with a chainsaw.

Same yahoo decides for himself what's clearing and what isn't, takes a little more latitude and removes something that can't be instantly replaced.

The reg agencies are relatively easy; around here, unless there's a stakeholder like a watershed organization, they're all too happy to tell you when you can cut.

What I see . . .
What I see are some extreme positions about not touching anything without permission. And what I still see is a lot of grey area, a lot of stuff that depends on context and common sense, and the need for some common sense legislation.

If a tree is blocking a navigable waterway, the landowner should have a very limited time in which to remove the tree. After that, the landowner should forfeit any claim to that tree. Otherwise, few rivers here in Maine would remain navigable.

I could be wrong, but I believe that in Maine that boaters have access to the shoreline of rivers up to the mean high water mark.

I agree that traipsing across someone’s property with a chainsaw without permission would offend just about any resident landowner. On the other hand, using a loppers to clear out downed branches, while never leaving your canoe, and while on a river bordered by a timber company land would, I hope,be viewed by just about anyone as a common sense approach. And then, there is still all that grey area in between.

Yes, there is Gray Area

– Last Updated: Nov-14-14 11:01 PM EST –

In actual fact, cutting pathways through downed trees is standard procedure any place that I've ever been, whether or not it is truly legal. If a river gets traveled by ordinary people, someone is going to cut just enough to get a boat through. Around here, most of this is done by fishermen, though on popular paddling rivers it's done by paddlers or outfitters. When the outfitters do it, they go whole hog, because most of their clients can't exactly thread a needle with their boats. In cases that I've known about, no outfitter ever got permission to go cutting, but it's certainly possible that some of the time they do. I think most people view this the same way as a tree that falls on a road. Removing a fallen tree from a road doesn't rob the owner of the wood, and removing a small limb or a few branches of a tree that's in the river is really no different. Most people have common sense about this.

In the 50 years that I've been boating on small rivers I am sure that I've seen thousands of trees that were blocking passage or were close to doing so, and in all that time I've not seen a single one of them which was ever removed by the landowner and used in some way (though a few were removed by outfitters with the pieces piled on shore). I'm sure such trees are viewed as "gone" by the landowner, if they are even considered at all. That said, you can't go wrong doing it the right way and asking permission. I'm pretty sure that the only reason any landowner would have for denying permission would be to maintain some physical reinforcement to his already-established (but erroneous) belief that no one should be paddling on the part of the river that he "owns".

As far as the river being navigable, and the idea that this provides justification for clearing a path, let that idea go. It's almost certainly a moot point. If a river is deemed navigable, it's only under some ancient law which gives you the right to float your boat there. It does NOT mean that anyone has a responsibility to make the river navigable in fact, and thank goodness for that!! A p-netter from Texas once insisted that there must certainly be a government agency in Wisconsin which would take responsibility for clearing blockages to navigation on tiny rivers if so requested, even going so far as to hire a contractor to do the job, but what that person implied is true in Texas isn't true here, not even remotely. In fact, such a government policy would be considered an incredibly stupid holdover of 19th-century thinking if it existed here. So, if Maine is like Wisconsin, there will be no "contracting out" of this sort of thing. You may, however, find that your DNR or some other agency will consider it okay for you to cut passageways on your own, but just don't expect them to thank you for putting the river "in compliance with the law". That ain't what the old navigation laws are about.

As much as I paddle on deadfall-choked rivers, I've never cut a single branch, though I admit that I've considered it now and then. I kind of like the idea of leaving things alone, and the presence of a few blockages on the river usually means I'm assured of having the place to myself all season, or until some local fisherman with a small motorboat and a chainsaw works his way into that stretch from farther below. By the way, a lot of blockages that are difficult to get through with a kayak are pretty simple with a canoe (just as is true with many other "difficult" launching/landing spots). I see this a lot on our club outings, and I know it is part of the reason that I am more complacent about blockages than a lot of people are.

Any stretch of river I'm familiar with that has as many blockages as what you seem to be describing would be far too much work to open without dozens of helpers. If you are dealing with hardwoods (multi-limbed trees, as opposed to conifers), you might have to wait for Ma Nature to do some of the work for you.

In my paddling career…

– Last Updated: Nov-15-14 7:33 AM EST –

I’ve only helped to remove one strainer. It was at the bottom of a small rapid in one of the few good moving water runs in my area.



It was definitely a safety hazard, so it had to go. There are lots of other downed trees on that river, but they aren’t safety hazards so I couldn’t be bothered trying to cut them out. Maneuvering over, under and around these obstacles is part of the fun of paddling.

Having said that, there are a couple of very pretty runs around here that are now impassable due to downed trees – a real shame. One is the Upper Nipnuc which I paddled a couple of years ago.

Shortly after I did this trip another 20 trees came down in an bad ice storm. We’ve talked about getting in there to clear it out, but it would be a lot of work.

We are fortunate around here that a lot of watershed associations are pretty good about keeping the most popular paddling rivers clear. Maybe it actually works the other way - maybe they are popular paddling rivers because the watershed associations keep them open. However it works, they do a great service to the paddling community. I should do more to help…

Related issue -
If you are in the Allagash Waterway area and you are thinking about cutting a tree you should be cautious. Is it dead? Are you sure?

Romoving logs for profit
Here in SC, there are some enterpunuers (I know that’s not spelled right) that make money removing old logs in the riverbeds that were part of the old logging-raft industry. They were floated down the rivers to the mills and many of the BEST Cypress logs were too heavy to float because of there weight/density which makes them highly desirable and valuable. They are partially imbedded in the muddy/sandy riverbottoms which certainly provide excellent fish/aquatic habitat. Some are partially exposed and would hinder navigation. ANYWAY, these logs are pulled out and taken to mills to be turned into high-end lumber that cannot be cut in any forests today, therefor highly valuable. Some individual logs bring thousands of dollars. There is a neat episode on the show “Off-Limits” that details this. Gotta be environmentally destructive. SO,… if people can do this purely for personal profit, it seems totally fine to be able to clear wood for navigation as long as you stay OFF personal property.

Nice write-up…however…some is not quite accurate depending on where in the state you live. {I am in Northern Wisconsin}

"In the 50 years that I’ve been boating on small rivers I am sure that I’ve seen thousands of trees that were blocking passage or were close to doing so, and in all that time I’ve not seen a single one of them which was ever removed by the landowner and used in some way (though a few were removed by outfitters with the pieces piled on shore). I’m sure such trees are viewed as “gone” by the landowner, if they are even considered at all. That said, you can’t go wrong doing it the right way and asking permission. I’m pretty sure that the only reason any landowner would have for denying permission would be to maintain some physical reinforcement to his already-established (but erroneous) belief that no one should be paddling on the part of the river that he “owns”. "

I do know of rivers here in Northern Wisconsin that are watched and regulated very close…where cutting WILL be an issue {an example is the Bois Brule}

I am also a landowner where a river, going into Lake Superior, goes right by my house and as a landowner…I speak from first hand knowledge that I personally do not want to here a chain saw running by my house by anyone except myself. This has nothing to do with whether or not anyone should be paddling by my house.

Everything up here is watched when it comes to the rivers and the woods.

I have several trees that came down this fall which , as soon as the ice gets firm, I will be cutting. I have quite a few people that run the river in spring thaw and I try to keep it safe for them. {and I tel them the path to run it if I hear them whooping and hollering as they are heading my way} I enjoy true river runners …not the beer float crowd. {as a side note, my river gets way beyond the beer crowds abilities}

I have been advocating caution and non destructive measures of removal because I don’t wish for anyone to incur a legal battle over the fact that they still believe this is the days where it was a rule of thumb that you could cut wood anywhere by your land line {surveyed or guessed at} within an axe toss from the perceived line. those days are gone…

Maine is woods and logging country and so goes their laws. Here , the road crew may cut a downed tree if it is in the road right away…but for anyone other than the land owner to take that wood it is a $500 dollar fine…logging country.

The rivers are Trout streams {many} and there is a limit on allowed cutting. there is also a 35 foot buffer area along the bank which is suppose to remain natural.

I advocate the safe way to allow your paddling…and that is to get permission and have an understanding with the people that really do have the power to say one way or another exactly what “YOU” are allowed to do.

otherwise …there have been a few suggestions on this thread of minimal branch removal…Which has been stated many times, Have been an acceptable method…I would stay on the minimal side of this endeavor if I were you.

Best Wishes


I see no disagreement here

– Last Updated: Nov-15-14 11:48 AM EST –

I was only pointing out that along most forested rivers, there's a lot that goes on in that so-called "gray area" which people simply accept as normal and common sense. The fact that I've never seen a fallen tree get removed (by anyone other than a rental-boat company) doesn't mean there isn't a single landowner who does so. I was only saying that in real life, lopping a few small branches from such a tree is a far cry from stealing the tree, and I DID say that the best thing is to contact the landowner. Note also that I'm NOT suggesting that anyone start cutting without asking on such a scale as needing a chainsaw. I think a job that requires a chainsaw is well outside any "gray area" no matter what one's standards are.

I am surprised that no one is allowed to do any cutting on a river like the Bois Brule. I have heard how popular that river is with paddlers, and so few paddlers are willing to drag over/through deadfall that it's hard for me to believe the river would be that popular if complete blockages were common and couldn't be opened. So I wonder if you are talking about blockages or just trees in the water. After all, making a small hole in a complete blockage is what we are talking about here, not the general removal of wood.

I think we probably agree also on that "navigable rivers" issue. It seems that some people actually believe that navigable rivers are by definition supposed to be open to travel by boat, and as an example, the p-netter from Texas that I mentioned was extremely adamant that this is true everywhere, but it's not. Oh! As a different kind of example to illustrate this, consider beaver dams. Does a paddler have the right to remove a beaver dam just so the river meets their idea of what is meant by "navigable"? Nope.