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Does a falling tree make a sound?

March 29th, 2021 by dk

It’s been seven months since the Holiday Farm wildfire. If you’ve visited or passed Blue River in the past month or two, you probably noticed trees festooned with pale blue dots. Those trees are marked for removal. Some look charred at their base but with healthy crowns, causing locals to worry that too many trees will be cut.

Evaluating which trees pose potential road hazards is complicated. “Getting a second opinion” on every tree would slow the clean-up process intolerably. I was curious how incentives have been aligned to favor particular outcomes. So I sent a list of questions to Elsa Gustavson at the U.S. Forest Service. I haven’t heard back from her, but here are my questions.

Regarding the crews who are evaluating and/or cutting the blue-dotted trees:

  • Is any portion of their remuneration determined (directly or indirectly) by the number of trees cut?
  • Do contracts codify alacrity by rewarding speed or punishing tardiness?
  • Do any contracts acknowledge that a certain-width path must be cut (healthy or not) to gain access to a hazard tree?
  • Are healthy trees that must be removed to gain access to hazard trees identified and tracked separately?
  • Once a tree is cut, are there additional fees earned for removing, chipping and/or processing the logs?
  • For trees that cannot be milled for lumber, who pays for the felled timber to be processed or disposed?
  • Who receives payment for any lumber cut from the felled trees, and how is the accounting handled?
  • Is the owner of standing tree always the owner of the resulting logs? If ownership changes in the process, how is that transfer documented?
  • Who determines the fate of a tree that is on private property, but is tall enough to block a public roadway if it fell?
  • If a tree poses a public hazard but stands on private property, what options are given to the owner and how are those options conveyed? How specific and timely must the owner’s response be?
  • Do any liabilities for tree-related hazards endure for contractors or their bond agents after the contracted period?
  • Are there best practices available in contract language that rewards crews for preserving as many trees as possible? (For example, if every felled tree obligated the contractor to grind the stump six inches below ground and cover with replacement soil, contractors would think twice before cutting even one tree.)
  • In short: If a tree is exactly in the midpoint of all evaluation factors, will contractors see greater incentives to cut or keep that one particular tree?

I have one more question, not for the Forest Service but for all of us. Why does public safety outweigh all other human concerns?

Life is full of hazards. Every tree is dangerous. A splinter can lead to infection and possible death. Healthy limbs don’t often fall on people, but the chances of something falling from above is never zero. We should all wear helmets all the time.

If we protect life so well that it’s no longer worth living, what good is that?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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