Caring For The Canopy

Trees—they’re everywhere! And that’s good thing! Notwithstanding their essential value to the ecosystem, they’re an added treat to the camp experience in many ways. Unfortunately, just as water, snow, mud, critters, and plants provide both benefits and threats, trees pose the same to camps and their patrons. Tree and limb failures occur frequently in our environment, and when combined with the presence of people and property (targets), they can have devastating consequences. This article will explore concepts in tree risk-management to equip camp leaders with reasonable and effective steps toward reducing the risk of tree-failure injuries.

While tree failures may occur frequently, they do not often involve people. In fact, according to the following illustration from “Living with Risk,” ¹ the probability of death from a tree failure is far less likely than other types of threats.

A Reasonable Approach

So, why the emphasis on tree threats given such an infrequent incident rate?  Simply stated, severity!  Even small-limb failures can cause serious to fatal injuries if falling 40 feet or higher from atop the canopy.     

In tree risk-management, the first hurdle we encounter is the question of what is a reasonable and doable approach. Most camp tree-risk plans consist of simply looking around for dead limbs and trees a few times a year, and cutting them down. And, while this is an effective way to reduce visible dead-tree threats, it does not constitute a comprehensive tree-risk plan. This method is further plagued by volunteer labor, high employee turnover, untrained surveyors, poor planting and pruning techniques, and a lack of overall tree-health knowledge. So with clarity and sensitivity, acknowledging the desire of camp leaders to help children grow and mature in a healthy and positive environment, we endeavor to take reasonable steps toward managing tree risks. 

Initially, our research focused on camp standards and governmental statutes to discern and clarify the standard duty of care owed to camp patrons. In addition, a survey of peer camps and related entities determined what other professionals were doing in similar environments where trees and people exist together in daily activities. Lastly, we compared the prior findings with tree-failure scenarios around the country to determine the effectiveness of the current level of risk-management measures to protect people and property. The findings concluded that:

  • Tree-failure injuries are not frequent, but when they do occur, can be severe or fatal.
  • Camp and governmental standards are vague and provide concepts rather than tactics.
  • Tree-risk plans from peer camps and related entities (schools, parks, towns) are lacking.
  • Facility and grounds staff are largely untrained and unskilled at frontline tree-risk detection.
  • Droughts, insects, improper care, and neglect have resulted in increased tree failure.

Build A Plan

With these conclusions intact, it was then necessary to build a sustainable, reasonable, doable, and affordable tree risk-management plan. Essential elements included tree risk-strategy development, mapping and inspection processes, and staff training.

The objective of a Tree Risk-Management Plan (TRMP) is to reduce the risk of injury or loss caused by tree failures in locations where targets (people and property) are prevalent. The strategy to accomplish this objective consists of three Protection Zones, four Tree Categories, two Inspection Stages, and a Hazard Tree Rating System.

The three protection zones delineate areas in the camp that may pose a risk to people based on the presence of trees in relation to the constant, frequent, or rare presence of targets (Figure A).²

Once the camp is mapped accordingly (Figure B), ³ camp leaders can then prioritize and allocate resources to address higher threat areas in order of highest to lowest risk.

The four tree categories assist camp leaders in qualifying tree risks during the inspection stages that may require some level of remedial care. These categories include:

  • Heritage Trees—often referred to as old and valuable trees
  • Landscape trees—trees planted by camp personnel to add aesthetic value
  • Trees with structural problems, notable defects, or health problems
  • Trees growing in stressful site conditions.

Inspecting Trees

With the zones now prioritized, and the tree categories established, surveyors can execute the inspection process for each zone.  Considering the thousands of trees that cover a camp’s landscape, it is not practical—if not impossible—to cover every tree with an individual tree assessment. Therefore, surveyors will allocate their resources accordingly to the areas with higher probability of risk. Tree-risk assessment is conducted step-by-step in two stages. The first stage involves an “area basis” assessment identifying tree group types and conditions within each zone. The second stage involves a “tree basis” assessment identifying specific trees that may pose a threat to the public. The following illustration⁴ reflects the delineation of protection zones combined with remedial action steps using the two inspection stages. If there are no other feasible remedial measures, tree removal is a last resort so as to eliminate the threat to public safety.

Rating Hazards

Lastly, the tree-risk plan should include a rating process to enable surveyors to identify trees that exhibit hazardous conditions that may pose a threat. To conduct this assessment, camps must employ qualified surveyors by conducting internal training of camp staff with grounds-maintenance responsibilities. In addition, the trained surveyor will complete a Tree-Hazard Rating Form that can be obtained from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).⁵ Internal camp staff can be trained using various learning tools provided by the ISA⁵ in its training library. I would recommend the following as minimum criteria for front-line surveyor training:  

  • ISA Tree Worker Safety DVD Training
  • ISA Pruning DVD Training
  • ISA Tree Maintenance DVD Training
  • ISA Risk Assessment and Tree Protection DVD Training

While this training is helpful to train and equip frontline staff in order to identify and mitigate tree threats, it does not replace the expertise provided by ISA professionals. ISA professionals should be engaged at any stage of the process that exceeds the competency or abilities of the camp’s on-site surveyor.

While injuries from tree failures are infrequent, they do carry an injury severity threat that warrants a more effective approach by camp leaders. Having a reasonable, doable, sustainable, and affordable strategy improves the long-term success of the plan, and will create safer environments where campers learn and play.      

Rick Braschler is the Director of Risk Management for Kanakuk Kamps, a Senior Risk Consultant in Youth Protection, an avid outdoorsman, husband, and father of five.  Rick can be reached at  For more information on the Kanakuk Tree Risk Management Plan, or to attend a training seminar, visit

¹ Living with Risk,” British Medical Association, 1987.

² Kanakuk Tree Risk Management Plan,” Braschler, 2015.

³ Kanakuk Tree Risk Management Plan,” Braschler, 2015.

⁴ “Guidelines for Tree Risk Management and Assessment Arrangement,” 2011.

⁵  International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)