VOLUNTEER: Chris McGuire clears the Nickel Plate Trail north of Peru on Friday. He retired from Norfolk Southern and used to operate trains on the lines he now clears. Staff photo by Tim Bath
VOLUNTEER: Chris McGuire clears the Nickel Plate Trail north of Peru on Friday. He retired from Norfolk Southern and used to operate trains on the lines he now clears. Staff photo by Tim Bath
What do you get when you add 40 miles of trail together with thousands of dead trees?

A lot of work.

Volunteers with the Nickel Plate Trail have put in overtime since the fall to keep the pathway clear of dead ash trees that have consistently blown over during an abnormal bout of torrential winds this season. 

Bill Click, vice president of the nonprofit trail organization, said a perfect storm of circumstances led to the busiest year since the trail first opened more than a decade ago for volunteers who maintain the trail.

The biggest factor was an onslaught of the emerald ash borer that hit the area about five years ago. The invasive species laid larvae in the trees, which eventually led to their slow demise.

Mike Kuepper, president of the trail group, said up to 20 percent of all the trees along the pathway are ash trees. And by the end of last year, almost all of them were dead.

“That means between Rochester and Kokomo, there were a heck of a lot of dead ash trees,” he said.

Click said he knew the epidemic of emerald ash borer would eventually cause major problems along the trail and could be dangerous to bikers and hikers. This year, he was right.

“I thought, 'We’re going to have a big problem,'" he said “Those ash trees, when they fall, they’re hurtling to the ground. You wouldn’t escape that if it fell on you.”

When the first big wind gusts hit last fall, the ash trees started coming down in droves, one after another. Some of them were small and didn't take much to clear. But others were full grown, with trunks as big as 3-feet in diameter. Those trees sometimes smashed railings and caused other damage along the trail.

And the trees haven't stopped falling since.

Kuepper said that's led to volunteers working nearly nonstop, hauling chainsaws and ropes out to each tree to chop it up and get it off the trail.

"Sometimes we no more than get it open and another storm comes through and we’re right back at it again," he said.

But the falling ash trees are way more than just a nuisance that needs to be cleaned up. They're a serious safety hazard.

According to Purdue Extension, dead and dying ash trees are extremely brittle and prone to cracking and dropping limbs on people and property. People have been killed or injured in cities across the country by falling ash tree limbs. Experts say the trees must be removed before they die or lose major limbs to prevent these tragedies.

"Private individuals and cities who have chosen to ignore the risk do so at their peril," according to Purdue's website.

In fact, many insurance companies have begun refusing to pay for damage caused by dead falling trees.

So far on the Nickel Plate Trail, the falling trees and branches haven't led to any injuries or accidents, although there have been some close calls.

Kuepper said trail officials are painfully aware of the threat posed by the trees. That's why they issue "NPT Alerts" on their Facebook page to keep people off the pathway before strong winds or stormy weather are forecast to hit the area.

“As volunteers, we realize the safety of all this," he said. "We’ve gotten a lot of money from the state, and we know we’re responsible for people’s safety, and we take that seriously.”

Considering there haven't been any injuries, the abnormally windy winter and spring have actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise, Kuepper said.

“It was almost a godsend to knock down all those trees, because they fell down when nobody was out there," he said. "Most of the ash trees are not easy to access or are located on a neighbor’s property and you can't cut them down. So the high winds really cleaned out the trail.”

The fallen trees have more than doubled the amount of work the small group of dedicated volunteers normally put into keeping the nearly 40-mile trail clean.

Click said it highlights just how much really goes into maintaining such a long pathway that is privately owned by a nonprofit.

He said there are about 10 core volunteers who do most of that work, which includes repairing asphalt cracks, fixing broken posts and fencing, mowing, spraying weeds, cutting back encroaching overgrowth and maintaining the trail bridges.

The nonprofit also owns an industrial-sized blower to keep off all the small twigs and other debris that quickly piles up on the pathway. Click said it takes two full days to run the blower up and down the length of the trail and costs around $100 in gas for each cleaning.

“The trail is so long, it’s hard to keep up with just one blower," he said. “There’s just a ton of work that needs to be done out there.”

Kuepper said it's only thanks to dedicated volunteers that the trail stays as clean and well-maintained as it does. Even with so many trees falling recently, the pathway has never been blocked or closed for more than 24 hours, he said.

“It’s all volunteers," Kuepper said. "We don’t have enough money in the budget to hire out work, and volunteers can be hard to come by. But in some ways it’s a blessing, because we take care of it better than if it was just your day job. It depends on the way you look at it.”

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