Forest Service rejects damage claim
A dying Jeffrey pine on a Forest Service lot off Logan Creek Road presented a hazard to the home of Allen and Louise LeFever.
Unfortunately, the LeFevers, a retired couple that built their home in 1976, didn’t realize that the aging tree could fall onto their property and destroy a satellite dish.
For that reason, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, has rejected the couple’s claim for damages, saying the residents had a responsibility to inform the Forest Service of the hazard.
“It’s incomprehensible,” Louise LeFever said this week. “We didn’t worry about a hazard tree; we were more concerned with fire.”
While the LeFevers had notified the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit about accumulated brush on the lot next door, they admit they did not recognize the dying Jeffrey pine as a threat.
Like their own property, the Forest Service lot, purchased with the use of Burton-Santini funds more than a decade ago, is on a steep slope. The LeFevers figured that any tree that might fall would fall downhill.
But on Dec. 1, the ailing pine tree was uprooted and fell across the slope, coming to rest on top of the LeFevers’ large satellite dish.
“I was flabbergasted that it came this way and didn’t fall straight downhill,” Louise LeFever said.
The couple were even more surprised when informed last month that the government had turned down their claim for $1,600 damage.
In a letter, Deputy Regional Attorney James Andrews explained that the Forest Service was not negligent, because it had not been notified of the potential risk.
“Due to the volume of trees in the Lake Tahoe Basin, it is virtually impossible to identify all hazard trees,” Andrews wrote. “Therefore, the (Forest Service’s) policy for management of hazard trees relies heavily on notification from the public.”
The law Andrews relied on is the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, which allows the public to sue the federal government for damages only in cases of negligence, wrongful act or omission.
Bob Simmons, the USDA regional attorney, upheld Andrews’ interpretation of how the law applies to claims stemming from hazardous trees in the Tahoe Basin.
“With the amount of land there, the public can’t reasonably expect a forest ranger to inspect every single tree as a potential hazard,” Simmons said.
He added that the Forest Service would be liable only if it failed to respond to a call from a resident about a possible hazard.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit receives 200 to 300 calls a year from residents who live near one of the 3,500 urban lots managed by the Forest Service and believe a hazard exists, said Brian Garrett, a Forest Service assistant urban lot manager.
The Forest Service will inspect the potential hazard, and dispatch a crew to remove a tree if its foresters believe it threatens a nearby property.
The Forest Service receives fewer than two dozen claims of damage from falling trees a year by Tahoe residents, Garrett said. He added that he can recall no claim of damage from a falling tree that had been inspected and deemed healthy.
Knowing of the Forest Service policy is no consolation to the LeFevers, who must now decide whether or not to pursue damages against the agency in U.S. District Court.
“When you’re retired, you have to think hard before deciding to spend any money on a lawsuit,” said Allen LeFever.
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