Falling Trees on the Appalachian Trail: Is it Safe to Hike?

What’s Really Dangerous?

When you announce to your friends and family that you are going to hike the A.T., after the moment of stunned silence, the questions start to come: “What about bears (and/or snakes)?”, “Are you going to carry a gun?”, “Where will you sleep?”, etc. As you do your research on the trail and engage with others who have experienced long hikes, you become equipped to handle these questions with a certain degree of expertise and aplomb. Ticks are the greatest biological hazard, road walks and stream crossings the greatest physical ones and heat and hypothermia the most likely weather-related concerns.

Jason Parish’s tragic and untimely death by a falling tree at Ed Garvey shelter earlier this week might add another concern to this list for some. Statistically, it’s said, we are all much safer on the Trail than driving our cars to and from it. Still, we are walking past an uncountable number of trees in varying conditions of health and soundness. Should we (and our friends and families) be worried?

Frankly, no. The odds of a tree falling on a specific person are extremely slim–but the risk is higher in some places than in others.

Jason Parish. AP Photo provided by Valentine Gorski

Jason Parish. AP Photo provided by Valentine Gorski

From a Trail Club’s perspective, management of “hazard trees” (as they are called) is typically addressed in a Club’s Local Management Plan (aka LMP). This document outlines a Club’s responsibilities regarding nearly every aspect of Trail Management–from privies to parking lots. The LMP is always developed and updated in close concert with our management partners and land owning agencies–and is reviewed in great detail by all parties. While each Club’s plan is different, and specific to their local conditions and constellation of partners, ATC provides a basic outline that provides overall organization of topics, as well as some standard language for addressing common Trailwide management concerns. Each plan also has sections for local action items. You can see MATC’s (Maine Appalachian Trail Club) LMP here if you want to get an idea of the level of detail.

Ed Garvey Shelter, photo: blueroadstohikingtrails.blogspot.com

Ed Garvey Shelter, photo: blueroadstohikingtrails.blogspot.com

I can’t comment specifically on the events that resulted in Jason’s death. I have not visited the site or spoken with any officials or eyewitnesses. Nor have I reviewed the local Trail Club’s LMP. Speculating from what is contained in other LMP’s that I am familiar with, there was likely policy that indicated that the club will inspect for and arrange removal of visibly diseased, dying or dead trees near overnight sites, trailheads, trail junctions or other likely places where hikers congregate.

The news reports indicating the tree in question may have been flagged (marked with colored plastic tape) might indicate that it was slated for removal.

Photo: arborwell.com

Photo: arborwell.com

Removal of a tree near a structure such as a shelter can prove very challenging. In the built environment, a bucket truck pulls up to your house and a guy rides up and starts cutting the tree down from the top, lowering pieces to the ground with rigging or a crane.

Photo:  ruidosonews.com

Photo: ruidosonews.com

This is not possible in most backcountry settings. The tree must be felled from the ground in such a way that it does not hit the shelter or endanger the sawyer or her helpers. This is a highly specific skill and very few trail club volunteers are certified to perform this work. Felling damaged or dead trees is even more dangerous than healthy ones, as the tree’s structure may be compromised in unseen places. In Mass for example, our LMP says that the Department of Conservation and Recreation will assist in the removal of hazard trees (they are the landowner for most of the overnight sites in Mass). So even though a tree may be flagged, actual removal may take some time to work its way through the agency involved.

Further, dead trees may stand firmly for decades before they become rotted to the point of failure. While they are standing, they provide valuable habitat and food for insects, birds and small mammals. It’s only where we as trail managers have created locations for hikers to congregate should questionable trees be considered for removal. Elsewhere in the forest–including along the Trail itself–they are part of the natural process, and usually left standing. An exception to this might be in an area that has suffered from an unusual die off of large numbers of trees, perhaps from insect pests or a forest fire. In this area, the hazard is concentrated.  There may be many trees that have the potential to injure hikers passing through,  so some removal of trees near the trail may be warranted.

Looking Around is Good

photo9snag, ext.wsu.edu

Good habitat, but not at a tentsite. Photo: ext.wsu.edu

As a hiker, you do need to take some responsibility for your own safety. When you camp, look around for damaged trees (as Jason’s party did, according to some news reports I read). Don’t put yourself in a location where that tree could come down–especially in rain, snow, ice and/or windy conditions.

Trees don’t always fall in what appears to be the logical direction, and branches or part of the tree can fall anywhere. In the winter it can be difficult to spot dead trees if they have not already shed branches, lost large sections of bark or aren’t full of critter holes. Look for a heavy covering of moss or fungus and/or the absence of small branches at the tips that in a healthy tree would sprout leaves or buds in the warmer season. Listen for snapping or popping sounds (these will be different from the squeaking of tree branches rubbing together in the wind).

Stay away from trees that look like this.  Photo: aaatreexperts.com

Stay away from trees that look like this. Photo: aaatreexperts.com

From news reports, Jason seemed to be the victim of extremely bad luck. His party identified the tree as a possible hazard. He did not camp under the tree. According to news reports, he was struck while moving through the campsite to check for any items that might have been left behind.

Risk is Everywhere, but it’s not Everything

Visitors to the Trail do assume a measure of risk that is not the same as walking down the sidewalk in our hometown. There are hazards in both places, to be sure. We generally accept them as part of our participation (both on the Trail and in ‘normal’ society)–but there are ways to be aware of the potential risks and to some degree, mitigate them.  I can’t speak for Jason or his friends and family, but one does not go out on the Trail to be fearful of every possible thing that could go wrong. We go to experience the natural world in as unfettered a manner as possible–consistent with our skills and experience. Go out and hike.

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