I was somewhat distressed to read Trish Zornio’s opinion piece in which she seemed to be fit to be tied that — God forbid — a private entity could actually own a mountain, and even more to her dismay, that they could decide, as any private land owner has the right, to deny people to set foot on it. Just the title of her opinion piece, “Should private citizens be allowed to own or charge for Colorado’s 14ers?” (emphasis added) should be enough to raise alarm bells for any private landowner.

Using some artful wording and catch-phrases — “equitable access;” “bad-faith landowners;” “profiting unreasonably” — she talked around, but hinted at, using eminent domain or some other means to allow the government to force landowners to allow recreational users on their property.  It seems that Zornio – and some recreational land users – think they have some God-given right to use other people’s land for whatever they feel, and regardless of the landowner’s wishes. One has to wonder from where this sense of entitlement has come? 

The idea that land could be taken, because for some reason it’s just inconceivable that a private party could actually own a mountain, should send a chill down every American’s spine.  The taking of land by the government should only be as a measure of last resort, and only for the most dire of situations. Recreational use, as much as Zornio, or I, or millions of Coloradans and tourists may desire it, simply does not rise to a level that justifies taking land from private owners or forcing them to allow recreationists.

This begs the question: where else Zornio would want this to lead? That private lake that looks beautiful from a distance? Well, we’ll just take that, too. How about the beautiful meadow that has been in someone’s family for generations? Well, heck, add that to the list of things the government should take for purely recreational use. 

Sorry, but no.

To be fair, she is on good ground in her suggestion to amend Colorado’s laws to indemnify private property owners from injuries that may befall a hiker or climber. While injuries are rare, private landowners should be shielded from the occasional misfortune that may come as part of engaging in risky outdoor recreation in an environment that is often inhospitable.

And, ideally, it would be wonderful if private landowners would open their properties to recreational users, and there are many ways to persuade them to do that. Partnerships with government agencies and non-profit organizations, such as the arrangement that recently led to the opening of (most) of the Decalibron Loop, or the purchase of land easements through a property, or even the outright purchase of private property through which a trail crosses, such as recently occurred in the town of Green Mountain Falls, are ways to open private lands for recreational use. Heck, sometimes you can just go around private lands, as was the solution in the case of an inadvertent incursion onto private land of a popular trail near Cripple Creek.

Colorado Springs has had great success with its Trails, Open Space and Parks tax, which has acquired many acres of land for recreational use — all of it without eminent domain, which the program is forbidden to use. Land is acquired only from willing sellers, and only at fair market value. Other local governments in Colorado have similar programs for purchasing open space for recreation. This is how private land should be opened for recreational use: when all other voluntary methods to gain access have failed.

The “it’s wrong for someone to own a mountain” refrain is a familiar one heard in the outdoor recreation community, so in that regard, Zornio’s opinion piece isn’t anything new. What makes her opinion particularly galling, however, is that it comes from someone who aspired to be a lawmaker. Imagine if she had the power to write laws that took private land from their owners.

Utah, where the enthusiasm for outdoor recreation closely follows Colorado’s, specifically excludes the use of eminent domain for purely recreational uses.

If there is going to be any legislation proposed, I would ask that Colorado’s elected officials amend our eminent domain laws to forbid its use for purely recreational purposes.  

Bob Falcone lives in Colorado Springs. Twitter: @hikingbob

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Bob Falcone

Bob Falcone lives in Colorado Springs. Twitter: @hikingbob