Why be Concerned about Hazardous Trees?
Few visitors to recreations areas are experts on trees. Managers cannot assume that visitors will be able to evaluate hazardous trees and avoid them. Visitors will be either oblivious to the possibility of hazard trees or they will assume that managers have eliminated such trees. Thus, managers have some moral obligation to provide a relatively safe environment for visitors.
Visitors assume some level of risk when they recreate on the National Forest, but managers that invite visitors onto designated recreation areas are responsible for ensuring visitor safety for reasonably foreseeable hazards. The Federal Tort Claims Act generally holds the federal government liable in the same way as a private party for negligent acts committed by federal employees in the course of their employment. Failure to inspect and treat known hazard trees in recreation areas may be considered negligent. Informing visitors of potential hazards (e.g. by signs) does not always eliminate this liability. It is the responsibility of managers to inspect and correct any known or foreseeable dangerous conditions in order to minimize the potential for injury to visitors or damage to property.
Liability in cases that involve injuries or damage resulting from hazard trees is based on what a reasonable professional in the situation would have done. If a manager knows, or should have known, of a hazard but fails to take reasonable actions to alleviate the hazard, the federal government may be liable for negligence. The individual manager may also be personally liable if such inaction is considered beyond the scope of his/her employment. To help avoid liability and to be successful in litigation, a hazard tree program is necessary. A hazard tree program, at minimum, consists of trained individuals inspecting trees on a regular basis and taking mitigating measures on trees that are judged to be high risk hazards. Issues raised during litigation require the agency to document the actions taken to mitigate hazards. The level of training provided to tree inspectors and the forms used to demonstrate inspection are critical components of establishing that the agency took proper actions to alleviate hazards. Thus, training and documentation are essential components of a hazard tree program.