The long lived benefits of trees

Trees provide valuable lake habitat long after their lives on land have ended.

For decorative purposes.
Adding treetops into lakes (a practice called fish sticks) adds visual appeal to a shoreline property and creates a great place to view wildlife. Illustration credit: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that the benefits of trees on our lakefront properties are many. The cool shade provided by the outstretched limbs of a maple tree not only provides a place to sit and enjoy the lake, but also reduces our energy bills by shielding our homes from the sun. Trees add a calming element to our yards that brings us closer to our lakes. Imagine the sounds of the rustling leaves of the quaking aspen or cottonwood tree with the call of a belted kingfisher as it swoops down to the lake to grab an unsuspecting fish. Trees also provide habitat for wildlife we love, like songbirds, squirrels, and owls. Trees truly enhance shoreline living for us and the animals that live around the lake.

However, we often overlook the benefits of trees that materialize long after their lives along our shorelines have ended. After growing for decades, shoreline trees eventually die and fall into lakes where they play new roles. These partially submerged logs now begin to provide important habitat for fish, turtles, birds, and more. These fallen trees also slow the energy of waves, reducing erosion and preventing sediment suspension, thereby improving water clarity. Fallen trees also boost the lake food web by providing a place for attached algae called periphyton to live. These periphyton then support grazing invertebrates like mayflies, snails, and caddisflies, which are food for amphibians, birds, and fish.

Fish especially benefit from fallen trees. Peer into the water around a fallen tree in late spring or early summer, and you may see smallmouth and largemouth bass building their spawning nests around them. Or look for strings of yellow perch eggs draped across the submerged wood. You may see bluegill who are attracted to fallen trees because they eat the invertebrates grazing on the periphyton. Northern pike may also be present because they use fallen trees for cover while they wait to ambush their prey.

Tree loss caused by shoreline development

Historically, Michigan lakes contained plentiful downed trees that fell through time – up to hundreds of downed trees per mile of shoreline. However, as people developed residential neighborhoods along lakeshores, fallen trees were often removed for aesthetic or recreational reasons, leading to a barren shoreline lacking vital habitat. Exacerbating this loss is the removal of living trees to clear the view along residential shorelines. This practice ends the natural cycle of tree growth, maturation, and falling of dead trees into a lake’s nearshore area.

Although our lakes have been altered, lake landowners and lake communities, including lake associations, can work together to restore the benefits of trees to our lakes in two steps:

Step one: Plant more trees along your lakefront property

Planting Michigan native trees near the shoreline begins to restore the ancient process of trees growing and providing vital services to the landscape while alive and then, in death, providing critical habitat and structure underwater.

Step two: Add trees back to the lake with fish sticks and turtle logs

For decorative purposes.
Fallen trees are vital habitat for turtles, fish, and birds. Credit Jo Latimore

Placing fallen trees into the water can add nice visual interest to a shoreline property and will provide an ideal wildlife watching location. This practice, called “fish sticks” or “turtle logs,” is becoming more popular throughout the Upper Midwest. These practices add recently cut treetops or logs into the nearshore area of lakes (also called the littoral zone). The trees are temporarily secured to the shore and once the logs become waterlogged, they will remain in place and offer the many benefits of a naturally fallen tree.

Intentionally adding wood to a lake requires a permit from the State of Michigan, whose staff is ready and willing to provide you with technical assistance! If you are interested in restoring woody habitat to your lakefront property, check out the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s shoreline protection webpage.

A version of this article originally published in the October 2022 issue of the Lakefront Lifestyles magazine.

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