Who is responsible for hazardous trees?

The willow that fell near the Shotover River. Photo: ODT files
The willow that fell near the Shotover River. Photo: ODT files
A tree fell suddenly on a family near Queenstown last January, causing serious injuries. It was beside Shotover Jet operations and technically on a Department of Conservation marginal strip.

Reactions commonly come from two opposite view points.

One focuses on potential negligence and health and safety issues. Such an incident should never have happened. Organisations need to take responsibility for what should have been preventable.

The other wonders what the world is coming to. Such an accident could occur anywhere and - accepting some risks in life - people have to take personal responsibility. People should have the sense not to sit under trees in high winds. Organisations should not receive the blame.

Doc has investigated the circumstances of the willow tree and its precipitous crash. The report, largely, falls into the first camp. The tree had not been properly assessed or maintained. No safety plan was in place for the site and most Wakatipu safety plans had not been reviewed. Regular arborist assessment of trees at the site are recommended along with establishing extreme weather event procedures with the tour operators.

It so happens the fault in the tree was in the root ball below ground level, which was "unlikely to have been identified during standard maintenance checks". That suggests expensive and extensive arborist checks are needed.

The willow provided shelter for several Shotover Jet picnic tables and was on a popular place for viewing the boats. It was also near a mobile outdoor coffee outlet. A strong case could be made for checking and monitoring this particular willow.

The matter is much cloudier, however, when the issue is broadened, when other circumstances are considered.

How far should Doc, district councils and other public agencies like the Land Transport Agency go in safeguarding the public from "dangerous" trees?

Trees are living things which grow old and weak and fall over. That is part of the cycle of life. And trees, as they should be, are everywhere - on our reserves, roadsides, parks and beside our tracks.

There must be limits to public liabilities for sheer practical reasons. In Doc's case, it has thousands of tracks through trees and hundreds of reserves. Most tracks will have scattered fallen trees along their path when spring arrives and several months have passed since the last tree clearing. Similarly, slips will slide through various tracks after heavy rain.

Doc, after the Cave Creek disaster on the West Coast in 1995 when 14 people died after a viewing platform fell into a canyon, developed structure registers and inspection programmes. A fair degree of prudence is advisable and the multiple failings at Cave Creek were shocking.

Nevertheless, dangers from trees have to be treated pragmatically. Doc can develop its inspection and safety plans - and carry them out - but just for the highest use places.

Doc has a "visitor risk policy" along these lines. The focus is on "front country" sites where visitors might not have the experience to know about risks. Dangerous trees are meant to be assessed in places where visitors gather. In the back country, only risks that threaten structures and huts are looked at. That is appropriate.

There should be, if that matter is not to be tied up in red tape and a compliance nightmare, some subjectivity on what counts as where a site where people gather.

Public expectations should not be too high for many reserves and tracks. Doc knows most places have natural risks which cannot be eliminated. Although Doc should deal with the worst of the hazards in the most popular places, members of the public also need to recognise the risks of the outdoors as well as the dangers of the likes of high winds.


Signage, then, not just welcoming outdoor furniture.

A right to sue would focus proprietorial attitudes to what is, or isn't, negligence.

I would have assumed that mother nature was responsible, unless you can prove who planted it, made it rot, and created the weather / ground conditions that cause the tree to fall over.

Given that there have been other serious incidents where trees falling over and caused serious or fatal injuries, would it not be appropriate for goverment to bring in legislation governing the height of all trees to a maximum height of 1.2 meters and with a maximum of 3 branches per tree, not exceeding 250mm in length.

While there may be some exeptions to the rule, this would only be allowed if the individual trees in question were fenced off in such a way that the top of the falling tree would be contained within the 3 meter high fenced off saftey zone.

Forestry interests may well object to having this new law, however, with the increasing number in "Tiny Homes" being built, this should not cause them concern.

The DCC is in full agreement and will lead the country in bringing these changes about, having already set rates for planting consents, safety inspections and annual administration fees ...

Marijuana plants will of course be exempt on medical grounds ...