The Value of Natural Shoreline

Beyond the buffer zone lies the actual lake shore, which can vary tremendously among lakes without any human intervention. Yet with “management” of the shoreline by people, we get an extremely wide range of conditions and features. Dense vegetation, lawns, natural rocks, riprap, or any combination thereof is possible. And the adjacent shallow water area is just as important, with conditions ranging from a jumble of rocks and woody debris to open sand under natural conditions and often a sterile open water habitat when people decide to “clean up” the nearshore zone.  

Findings from work in Vermont more locally and the National Lakes Assessment more nationally have documented how important the condition of the shoreline and nearshore zone is to overall lake function and species diversity. More fish, more birds, more reptiles and more amphibians can all be expected when the shoreline is in a natural condition, documented in multiple papers in Lake and Reservoir Management, including a 3-paper series by Kaufman et al. in 2014, based on data generated in the National Lake Assessment.

A useful environmental guideline is that if we don’t clearly understand all the linkages in a habitat, leave it as natural as possible for best results. The reasoning behind this is that the condition of the habitat is a complex function of many factors and has evolved into what it is over time as a function of those factors, and disturbing those conditions is not likely to have a desirable result unless we have a clear understanding of all the factors and how they interrelate. Much as with buffer zones, however, there is a human tendency to want to organize the shoreline and nearshore zone, to give it order and aesthetic appeal based on some innate sense of what it should look like. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but functionality can be objectively assessed and rarely corresponds to what most people think is pretty.

New Hampshire and Vermont have shoreland protection laws that encourage natural shorelines, but the protection of the nearshore zone seems less clear (or enforceable). The Wetlands Protection Act in Massachusetts (and similar statutes in most New England states) provides some protection of both shorelines and the nearshore zone, although that protection is subject to interpretation by locally empowered commissions. There is generally solid recognition of the value of lake edges in New England, but actual management of this zone is not as well developed as we might like.

Pretty but not very functional as habitat

Much better habitat, not the best access