Camper death near Piney raises concerns over dead-standing tree hazards, intense forest use
Meredith Latchaw, 47, was killed by blunt force trauma when she was struck by a falling tree in the White River National Forest near Piney Lake on Friday, Eagle County coroner Kara Bettis has confirmed.
Latchaw was a science teacher at Grandview in Aurora and is remembered as a favorite among students for her kid-centered approach, Principal Lisa Roberts told Alan Gionet with KCNC-TV.
Gionet himself happened to be camping nearby at the time during what was one of many busy weekends this summer in the White River National Forest. He said the tragic event shook him up considerably, not only for the freak occurrence but for the fact that Latchaw was so well admired.
“I got a message the following day from one of my former co-workers whose daughter was coached by her in volleyball … I’ve only begun to realize what a wonderful human being she was,” Gionet said.
While dead-standing trees fall frequently in the White River National Forest, deaths are rare, said District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis.
The fact that a tree struck Latchaw on Friday speaks to the larger issues of intense use of public lands in Colorado this summer.
“We have a lot more people in the forest,” Veldhuis said.
Visiting from the Front Range, Gionet said his family couldn’t find a spot to camp anywhere else in the state on Friday, so he went to a first-come, first-serve location near Red Sandstone Road, about 12 miles north of the town of Vail. He assumed the site would be available but when he got there, Gionet realized the location he had in mind had been closed off.
“There really weren’t very many sites,” he said.
The “sites” to which Gionet refers aren’t designated sites, but as dispersed camping is available to all in the National Forest, “sites” like the ones the Gionet and Latchaw families identified on Friday have been well worn from much use, with grass packed down on flat spots and circles of rocks which are used for campfires. They begin to resemble traditional sites after several weeks of heavy use.
Gionet said he selected one of those sites, and the Latchaw family was in a similar site next to his, about 100 feet away. Moments later, “gusty winds had come up, and knocked that tree down on the family’s campsite,” Gionet said.
Tree removal efforts
Removal of dead-standing trees has been common in nearby forest areas in recent years, but it’s usually performed in the name of wildfire fuels removal.
Upon hearing about the incident near Piney Lake on Friday, University of Colorado forest ecologist Thomas Veblen said removal of dead-standing trees from localized areas near trails, roads and camping areas makes more sense than removal of dead-standing trees over a vast area of the backcountry.
“Dead-standing trees are part of the norm for those forests,” Veblen said. However, “in areas where people are walking around, you want to cut the dead trees.”
Veblen said while he’s never seen a data set to quantify the danger, the fact that dead standing trees can kill people in the forest is well known among researchers.
“There are many times when I’ve been out with a field crew of students, working in areas of beetle kill, and when the wind comes up, we just have to leave, we have to get out,” Veblen said. “This is a very significant risk.”
Gionet said he would like to see dead-standing trees removed from the well-known camping areas of the White River National Forest, like the one where his family and the Latchaws were camping. Veldhuis agreed it’s something to consider, in light of the increased use the forest has seen in recent months.
Veblen said the forest service has made efforts to that end in other areas of Colorado in recent years.
“It’s hot and sunny in areas where I used be able to camp under a tree cover, but the hazard of those trees — especially the lodgepole pine, which decay very quickly — the hazard of those falling on tents and hikers is just so high that the forest service had no choice,” Veblen said. “And that’s totally justified. Spend the money cutting those trees, but I have to question the logic of doing helicopter logging in remote areas where people are unlikely to be able to walk.”