Hazard Trees

Hazard Trees

Over the first few weeks of my internship at Mount Rainier, one of my most frequent jobs has been monitoring and assessing hazard trees around campgrounds and public areas. Hazard trees are, well, any type of hazardous tree that could inflict damage on property or people. While a dead tree in a forest should be left to natural processes of decomposition and disturbance, a dead tree looming over a campsite could be dangerous to the people occupying the space. Hazard tree assessments include walking around public areas and diagnosing surrounding trees as hazardous or not, then using a hypsometer to calculate the tree’s distance and height. If the height of the tree is greater or equal to the distance from the point of interest, the tree is officially hazardous and could cause harm by falling in that direction. More data is then measured about the tree including the date, species, bearing, condition, suspected cause of death, etc.; then the information is logged into our database and designated to be chopped down.

Most of my hazard tree work has been done with my coworkers, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to walk around the campgrounds and learn from them. The assessments allow me to continue progressing my skills with data collection and field ecology tools. However, what I’ve definitely found most valuable is using the time to practice plant IDs and familiarize myself with common arboreal diseases. Hiking around with my two field guides, “Flora of Mt. Rainier National Park” by David Biek and “Common Diseases and Insect Pests of Oregon and Washington Conifers” by the US Forest Service, I have been learning a ton. It has been a great way to practice my plants before the subalpine vegetation monitoring season begins.

Fir engraver beetle burrows visible on the wood inside the bark of a Pacific silver fir.

The management of hazard trees also poses some interesting questions about the idea of wilderness and the potential side effects of accelerating the natural decomposition process. A dead tree in a forest in the park may stay standing for years, buffered by the trees around it from disturbances like wind. However, a campground is not a forest, despite the aesthetic of being surrounded by a few trees. In my experience, trees around campgrounds seem anecdotally to be unhealthier than forest trees, with high exposure to bark beetles, wind disturbance, and many root rot pockets. I am curious to see what research is out there, and what research is needed, to compare the health of trees around campgrounds. To me, seeing how unhealthy many campgrounds seem to be serves as a reminder of anthropogenic impact and the need for conservation areas. Also, there is some concern that the accumulation of hazard trees may be a potential fire risk, serving as fuel in a forest fire. However, much more research is needed before a statement could be made, and the risk may be small because of how wet this ecosystem is year-round.

If you ever get the chance to visit Mt. Rainier and notice some trees with blue paint on them, now you know – hazard!  

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