Over the weekend in Portland, Oregon, a 14-year-old volunteer with Friends of Trees was killed by a falling branch while planting seedlings in the Forest Service’s Sandy River Delta, a part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
The tragedy and the irony of this loss struck me hard. At a time when the U.S. Forest Service’s post-fire “hazard tree” logging is breaking the law up-and-down the Pacific Coast, what lessons should the Forest Service learn from this tragic event? Last month, for example, the Forest Service argued in court that because one “charred tree” took the life of an ATV rider in a Montana national forest, the risk associated with dead trees near roads warrants cutting them all down in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. By that logic, the weekend’s Columbia River Gorge tragedy would counsel for cutting down all trees everywhere.
In this pandemic era, evaluating health and safety risk has become a political football (sorry, Green Bay fans). Republican governors have won a temporary injunction against the federal Nanny State’s imposition of vaccine mandates on large employers. Accusations and counter-accusations of COVID-19 misinformation have proliferated around the globe, many as “efforts to shape political debate.”
The Forest Service is not immune from the temptation to use health and safety misinformation to shape political debate. According to Dr. Travis Heggie, a world-class expert in backcountry safety (and former National Park Service Public Risk Management Specialist and Tort Claims Officer), the risk of being killed by a falling tree (whether dead or alive) while visiting national forests is minuscule. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the Forest Service’s hyper-ventilative rhetoric around “hazardous” trees.
So before you venture out into the woods this weekend, consider these facts:
1) Falls while hiking or climbing are the leading cause of backcountry deaths (40%). Avalanches account for 15%, drowning incidents account for 10%, and heart attacks account for 10%. Deaths by tree fall account for 1% — same as deaths by bear attack.
2) You are much more likely to die where you live than while visiting our federal public lands. The National Park Service’s human mortality rate is 0.1 deaths per 100,000 recreational visits. This is much lower than the mortality rate of the overall U.S. population (844 deaths/100,000 people).
3) Trees do kill a substantial number of urban and highway road users – about 7,000 per year. Not as a result of trees falling on drivers, but because drunk/young drivers careen off roads into standing trees.
If you’re mature, as am I, use a hiking pole to prevent falling and to help clamber over down trees on and off trails. Don’t drive to the woods drunk nor swim or boat while intoxicated. Hang your food if camping in bear country. Most of all, enjoy our national forests, if the Forest Service is kind enough to let you in.