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Adopt Tree Assessment and Removal Policies and Practices

Joe Vossen, JD
October 2020
Guidelines to help prevent tree-related injuries and property damage

Trees are an important and beautiful part of many campuses, but they can damage property and cause personal injury. To reduce liability, your K-12 school, college, or university must conduct inspections and act when it becomes aware of sick or damaged trees in high-risk areas.

Maintain records of the assessment, trimming, and removal of trees. These records can help reduce liability if property damage or personal injury occurs.

United Educators (UE) can better evaluate claims if your facilities department or a contractor regularly reviews your campus tree inventory and logs that review. If you can prove when a damaged tree was last inspected, that could affect a claim’s outcome.

Also adopt or review tree assessment practices and enact policies for tree trimming or removal.

Consider the following UE claims and their outcomes:

  • When a fallen tree limb damaged a parked vehicle at one college, the institution discovered it did not routinely conduct or document tree inspections. This made the claim harder to defend and increased the settlement amount.
  • Another institution hired an arborist, who documented which trees were inspected, trimmed, and removed. The institution maintained those records consistent with its document retention policy. When a limb fell and caused property damage, this documentation was used in negotiations that helped the institution settle for more favorable terms.

Ensure Tree Assessment Policies

A tree assessment policy explains how and when trees on campus will be inspected, preserved, or removed. The University of Washington’s Campus Tree Care Plan establishes:

  • The facilities department has oversight of campus trees
  • What trees are planted on campus and which species to avoid
  • National best practices, including U.S. Forest Service

Establish a regular inspection schedule and include tree trimming procedures. The Virginia Tech Campus Tree Care Plan addresses arboriculture practices such as pruning, trimming, thinning, and reduction.

Your institution’s response to severe weather and high winds — frequent causes of tree damage — is also important. Virginia Tech’s plan establishes priorities after a storm: Remove tree debris that disrupts campus operations, then remove unsalvageable trees that pose hazards.

Remove Trees Safely

Remove potentially dangerous trees that can’t be trimmed or thinned. Whether to remove a live tree hinges on its condition and proximity to high-risk areas including:

  • Picnic spots
  • Student hangouts
  • Sports fields
  • Parking lots
  • Off-campus structures

Follow existing safety policies and use dangerous equipment correctly when removing trees. Amherst College has a bucket truck policy, in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), that includes tree removal guidelines. Kansas State University’s tree trimming safety guide includes chainsaw safety tips.