For many Coloradans, summiting the state’s tallest peaks is a rite of passage. From the unparalleled beauty of the Rocky Mountains, to a deep sense of adventure after a long day at altitude, enjoying Colorado’s rugged wild spaces is part of who we are.
But what many outdoor recreators — and even longtime residents — may not know, is that a surprising portion of Colorado’s perceived wild lands are actually owned by private citizens.
The notion that a private citizen could own a mountain — especially one of clear public interest such as a 14er — came as a great shock to me. After years of adventuring in the backcountry, I first learned of the controversial issue last summer when I found myself prohibited from completing a trek of four of Colorado’s 14ers: Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Bross and Mount Lincoln.
The closed trail was the Decalibron Loop, a seven-mile path located just outside of Alma. It mostly wanders above 13,000 feet in rocky terrain, easily part of the draw to high-altitude hikers like me. Yet despite its remote feel, it turns out this loop has large sections owned by private citizens — and these citizens can therefore decide, at any time, for any reason, to close it down.
Last summer, they did.
The trail has since reopened thanks to many efforts by local outdoor conservation groups to assuage landowner concerns. But the risk of future closures on this trail and others remains high without more concrete action by the state legislature.
All things considered, the legislative fix is relatively straightforward. In order to ease concerns of private landowners who fear lawsuits, the legislature could simply more clearly define the Colorado Recreational Use Standards to acknowledge the natural hazards of mountain tops and legally offer reprieve to landowners from non-maliciously caused injuries.
But even with this potential fix — which legislators should absolutely do, although it’s unclear if anyone is willing to carry the baton at this time — the question remains as to what fair and equitable public access for privately owned peaks looks like. In other words, is working to ensure public access enough, or must we do more?
This question is perhaps best illustrated when one considers the example of Culebra Peak, a privately owned 14er in the southern region of the state. At Culebra, private landowners of this peak not only significantly limit public access, but they charge a hefty price tag of $150 per person to those who are let in to climb.
This means anyone who wishes to achieve the feat of climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers — an arguably common goal among hikers and mountaineers — must pay a fellow private citizen a sizable wad of cash to make it happen. It’s a stark example of how public access in and of itself may not be enough if that public access comes with a catch.
And that’s the problem: So long as these lands remain in private ownership under current law, at any time, for any reason, other private landowners of beloved mountains or forest could choose to do the same — there’s nothing stopping them. This places not just one, but multiple Colorado’s 14ers and many more lower elevation peaks at risk of closure or steep fees.
Defenders of private ownership will suggest there are legal nuances of historical land grants and mining permits that require consideration here, and that is undoubtedly true. Revoking private land ownership would be exceptionally complicated at this point in time, even if it does feel the most right for the most number of people.
But the fact remains that the loss of equitable public access to some of our most scenic mountains should deeply concern every Coloradan. It is blatantly unfair that any single citizen could hold such power as to willy-nilly restrict access to, or make sizable funds off of, the state’s tallest, most striking peaks.
The path to change may be long, but it’s not impossible. At the very least, state officials can start by updating current recreational use laws, increasing trail use and maintenance funding and increasing assistance for partnerships that facilitate the purchase of private lands for public gain.
But most of all, I challenge officials to consider a series of steps that would eliminate bad-faith landowners from profiting unreasonably off our peaks. We may not be able to prevent private ownership, but fair and equitable access to the outdoors must remain a primary focus for who we are as Coloradans — anything less is truly wild.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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