Appalachian Trail Conservancy

SidehillBeth Critton and Bob Proudman
Sustainable Safety

By Bob Proudman and Beth Critton

The Appalachian forests are changing—increasingly mature, and subject to disease, drought, and insect mortality—highlighting the critical need for A.T. managers to inspect areas of human congregation such as overnight use areas and parking sites for possible hazard trees.

ATC is ramping up to provide volunteers and staff with training in hazard tree identification, so they are more knowledgeable when inspecting areas where hikers gather. Beginning later this year, Forest Service Plant Pathologist Bill Jones will be conducting workshops in each of ATC’s four regions, which are being organized by ATC Trail Resources Manager Leanna Joyner in consultation with the Appalachian Trail-maintaining clubs.

Cosmo Catalano of the Appalachian Mountain Club–Berkshire Chapter’s A.T. Committee, and chair of the ATC Stewardship Council’s Trail and Camping Committee, wrote about the fatality that occurred at an A.T. shelter site last spring. His commentary, “Falling Trees: Is the Trail Safe to Hike…?”, which appeared in Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials (that’s not a typo), melds hiker and Trail-management perspectives.

Traditionally, when an issue arises, a Trail club will look at its own capabilities and then involve its ATC regional office and agency partners as needed. Addressing potential hazard trees is no different. While skilled volunteer “B-Fallers” may be able to tackle some trees, additional arborist support may be needed. The first rule of safety is that individual Trail maintainers have the obligation to say "NO" and walk away from any situation they determine to be an unacceptable risk to their own safety (see Trailwork Tasks, Hazards, and Safety Gear). Clubs and individual maintainers should not tackle any task beyond their skill levels. State and federal partners stand ready to provide additional support through professional sawyers or private arborists.

Stump of hazard tree removed from shelter site by state Department of Conservation and Recreation staff 
(Photo: AMC-Berkshire A.T. Committee)

A number of clubs have acted this year to inspect their overnight sites more closely to discover whether potential hazard trees exist and should be removed: 
  • The Potomac A.T. Club inspected the David Lesser Shelter in northern Virginia and discovered several dead trees. The site was closed until the ATC Mid-Atlantic Regional Office (MARO) secured the services of a contractor.
  • The Susquehanna A.T. Club and York Hiking Club each worked with MARO to get contract assistance for potential hazard trees near their overnight sites on Peters Mountain in Pennsylvania.
  • The Connecticut Chapter of the AMC worked with the ATC New England Regional Office to remove several hazard  trees at the Limestone Springs Shelter. The site was closed until the trees were removed through a contract with a private arborist.
  • The AMC-Berkshire Chapter used a private contractor to remove dead limbs at the Goose Pond cabin and campsite and worked with a state agency sawyer who removed hazard trees at the North Wilcox Shelter.
At a meeting of Appalachian Trail federal managers held in July prior to ATC's biennial conference, National Park Service management provided this advice: Given limited resources, set goals.  Recognizing limited volunteer, staff, and financial resources, ATC recommends the use of general guidance or goal language. At this time, there is no specific federal funding for hazard-tree inspection in FY 2016.

ATC will work with its partners to increase public awareness with signs, warnings, and possible site closures where dead or dying trees predominate. Several agency signs are available and are pictured here. ATC has begun commissioning artwork to help educate users and looks forward to providing additional resources as they become available.

By raising awareness and increasing training, ATC believes both public safety and conservation can be optimized—sustainably, responsibly, and competently.
Beth Critton is Chair of the Stewardship Council
Bob Proudman is now an ATC consultant contributing to The Register. 

Hazard Tree Planning

General ATC guidance on potential hazard trees is found in Locating and Designing Shelters and Formal Campsites 2007: “Promote visitor safety: Face the shelter opening away from prevailing winter-season winds, preferably to the south and east. Regularly inspect the proposed site for hazard trees and have them removed.” The guidance also notes, “Hazard trees are dangerous to remove. This is an excellent job for your agency partner.”
A.T. maintaining clubs should address this issue in their local management plans (LMPs). ATC’s Local Management Planning guide is found at:
Two recent club LMPs have wording that addresses hazard trees: 

Trail maintainers or shelter adopters will visually inspect trees at overnight use areas and arrange for removal of any visibly diseased, dead or dying trees (hazard trees) within 75 feet of designated overnight sites. The AT Committee and the DCR division of State Parks and Recreation will assist in the removal of hazard trees upon request.
—AMC Berkshire Chapter’s Local Management Plan (2006)
On NPS corridor lands, dead and dying trees (hazard trees) within 125 feet of designated shelters and campgrounds will be identified and removed each year by RATC. The [Forest Service] is responsible for this process on FS administered lands.
—Roanoke A.T. Club draft Local Management Plan (2013) 
A bonanza of information is available from our partners in the National Park Service and Forest Service, USDA, including NPS direction for all national parks at and Forest Service resources at
Bill Jones, plant pathologist with the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, uses “How to Recognize Hazardous Defects in Trees” as one of his handouts. Download it at
The Conservancy will continue collecting information and will be prepared to provide references and websites at upcoming trainings and in the Toolkit for Trail Clubs section of our website.
Toolkit for Trail Clubs
We have revamped our website and  renamed the Toolkit to make it clearer that it is intended for A.T. maintaining club volunteers and Trail managers. 

It can be accessed at, or by clicking on links in the Trail Management and Volunteer sections of the website.

Find resources for A.T. maintainers, boundary monitors, club leaders and Trail managers, as well as back issues of The Register.

We will be adding to the Toolkit over the coming months and welcome your comments and suggestions.
Protection and Stewardship
Check out ATC's new website at and learn more about our work to protect and manage the Appalachian Trail and the natural and cultural resources that make it special and unique.

The website has new features, is better organized, and is more visually appealing. We hope you like it!
(Drawing courtesy of Ben Proudman)

Look Up!
Paying attention to your footing by keeping your eyes on the ground is prudent while hiking, but looking up at the trees should become a habit when you rest or make camp.

 Survey the site from all directions. Trees are generally taller than they appear from the ground, so look farther out than the immediate periphery.

While trees with no visible defect may fail, here are some things to look for:
  • Trees or limbs hanging over the site. Be especially aware of trees or limbs that are leaning towards you and are uphill of your campsite.
  • Broken branches or limbs suspended in a tree (known as widow-makers)
  • Large dead branches
  • Large hollow areas in a tree trunk
Be especially cautious after soaking rains and during windy conditions, when trees may become uprooted or branches are more likely to be dislodged.

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Photos of hazard trees from USFS Forest Health Protection: Tree Defects

Volunteer of the Month

Fifteen years ago, David Stelts volunteered for a stint on ATC's Konnarock Trail Crew, where he met volunteers from the Georgia A.T. Club.

He and his wife Pat joined GATC, and not only work as maintainers, but have taken on structures management, outreach, rare plant monitoring, invasives management, and more.

Read more about Pat and David here)

2015 ATC Meetings

Southern Regional Partnership Committee
October 17
Asheville, NC

Central & Southwest Virginia Regional Partnership Committee
October 24
Buena Vista, VA

Mid-Atlantic Regional Partnership Committee
November 7
Harrisburg, PA

ATC Stewardship Council
November 10–12
Buckeystown, MD

ATC Board of Directors
November 12-13
Buckeystown, MD

New England Regional Partnership Committee
November 21
Plymouth, NH

The Register  is published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for the volunteers of the Appalachian Trail, their agency partners, and others interested in the stewardship of the Trail.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy mission is to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trailensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come. To become a member, volunteer, or learn more, visit
Our mailing address is:
ATC Headquarters
799 Washington St, PO Box 807
Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

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