Removal of large woody debris from streams

Logs, branches, and limbs (“large woody debris”) play an important function in stream health and water quality by providing food and habitat for fish and aquatic bugs. Research shows that Brook, Rainbow, and Brown trout are all more common in streams with more large woody debris, likely due to the greater abundance of bugs living and spawning in the habitat provided by the logs, branches, and limbs. Large wood in streams can also help stabilize stream banks and store sediment.

However, it is very common for landowners in Macon County to remove logs, branches, and limbs from streams. Given this, university of Georgia and Coweeta LTER graduate student Sakura Evans decided to study why and how local landowners remove large woody debris from their streams.

Evans sent a mail survey to 2,000 landowners in Macon County and received 326 responses. While 30 per- cent of survey respondents said they were unsure about the ecological impacts of logs, branches, and limbs on stream health, 60 percent of landowners who returned the survey remove large woody debris from their streams, and most remove it at least once a year. When asked in the survey, landowners cited three main reasons: (1) to prevent pooling and flooding, (2) because it looks better, and (3) to keep the stream clean.

To understand these findings, Evans combined her survey results, information collected from interviews with landowners throughout Macon County, and her experiences from five years of working in the county, to determine that the removal of large woody debris can largely be explained by tradition and aesthetics. The practice of removing large woody debris from streams is partially due to practical reasons rooted in the long agricultural history of the region. Keeping streams clear of logs, branches, and limbs was safer for people, their livestock, and their crops. Over time, landowners have become accustomed to streams cleared of logs, branches, and limbs and perceive the removal of large woody debris as a necessary form of management and stewardship.

Today, according to Evan’s survey result, older landowners are more likely to remove large woody debris, and say they do it to keep the stream healthy and clean. This is likely because older generations of landowners kept their streams clean for agricultural purposes, and they continue to do it today even though they no longer use their land for agricultural purposes. However, now that agriculture is no longer the predominant form of land use, the removal of large woody debris is more likely tradition rather than necessity.

Evans has also found that aesthetics, managing land to achieve a sense of beauty or attractiveness, was another reason why people remove large woody debris from their streams. Many landowners desire a clear view of their stream from their home, and streams full of logs, branches, and limbs are not considered attractive and inviting. Often described as “keeping up the land,” landowners strive to maintain a “clean” appearance for their land and streams.

Whether it be tradition, aesthetics, or ecological stewardship, keeping up our region’s land and streams provides a sense of pride for many landowners. The natural question that comes from this research, then, is how can we link traditions and the desire to have a beautiful and healthy environment work together? We want to hear your thoughts on this issue, so send us descriptions of what you do to combine ecological and aesthetic stewardship.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. April 12, 2013.