This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The owner of three Colorado 14er peaks outside Alma says he will close access to hikers after state senators on Wednesday killed a bill that would have limited the liability of property owners who allow public access to private land.
“I have been advised by my own attorneys on several occasions that I am rolling the dice by leaving these peaks open,” said John Reiber, who has spent years working with the Town of Alma, the Forest Service and Colorado hiking groups to keep trails on his land on Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln open for the roughly 30,000 visitors hiking the Decalibron Loop every year. “Now, I do plan to close the 14ers for access. Without any regulatory support … I can no longer take on the level of risk in case someone gets hurt and wants to sue me.”
The Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday killed legislation — Senate Bill 103 — that would have amended the 1977 Colorado Recreational Use Statute to increase protections for landowners who allow public access from visitors who may sue if they are injured from inherent risks on the land.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mark Baisley, a Republican from Woodland Park, was supported by 25 different organizations, including outdoor recreation groups, water districts, conservation advocates and municipalities.
The legislation was proposed in response to a federal appeals court decision in 2019 that sided with a mountain biker who sued the federal government — and won a $7.3 million judgment — after he crashed in 2008 on a storm-damaged recreational trail on the Air Force Academy campus.
That appeals court decision has prompted landowners — like Reiber and the owner of 14er Mount Lindsey on the Trinchera – Blanca Ranch in the San Luis Valley — to shut down public access.
That federal appeals court concluded the Air Force Academy knew about the washed-out trail that injured that mountain biker and did nothing to warn visitors about the potential for harm. That’s a critical point in the state’s recreational use statute, which excludes landowner immunity from lawsuits if an injured party can prove the landowner displayed a “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition.”
The legislation would have removed that exception.
Kari Jones Dulin, an attorney who testified against the legislation for the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, said the state recreational use statute does not need amending. She said proof that the statute works is that Air Force Academy case is the only one “of its kind in 26 years” that has delivered an award to a person who was injured and sued a landowner. (Other attorneys supporting the legislation testified Wednesday that hard-to-track settlements in state court lawsuits have tested the Colorado Recreational Use Statute.)
If the legislation was passed, Dulin said it would “send a message to Coloradans and visitors alike that we don’t do anything and we don’t say anything when we know there are dangers that will harm you. Colorado is better than that.”
Two other trial attorneys testified against the bill, including the lawyer who represented the cyclist, James Nelson, injured on the Air Force Academy campus.
The trial attorneys were the only people who spoke against the bill. Another dozen landowners, groups and lawyers testified in support of the bill.
Baisley said the trial attorneys “are really after the opportunity to sue and make money. They all see blood in the water with the Nelson ruling.”
Baisley said he expects landowners to “react immediately” to the judicial committee’s 3-2 vote, which fell on party lines with, the panel’s two Republicans voting for the legislation and the three Democrats voting “no”.
“Suddenly these landowners are at risk for great cost when they have no benefits,” Baisley said, adding that he will revisit the legislation next year and find a possible compromise on amending the Colorado Recreational Use Statute.
In 2019, legislation proposed by then-Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, and then-Rep. Donald Valdez, a Democrat from La Jara, tried to remove the “willful and malicious” exception from the state’s recreational use statute. It also died in the Colorado House Judiciary Committee.
Reiber said his insurance agent last week told him that insurers could no longer cover his property with a policy that would help defend against lawsuits from people injured on his land. The lack of insurance and the judiciary committee vote, “has left me with few options,” he said.
He bought a bunch of “no trespassing” signs last year that trail advocates with the Colorado Mountain Club installed on the Decalibron Loop, which urge hikers to stay on the trail and not venture onto dilapidated mining structures and the peak of 14er Mount Bross, where a consortium of landowners provides no public access.
About half the land surrounding the Decalibron Loop, a 7-mile trail that crosses Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross, is privately owned and half is Forest Service land. Reiber hopes to work with the Forest Service to persuade them to build a new trail that can access the publicly owned Mount Cameron without crossing private land.
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Another option Reiber sees is to require every hiker who traverses his land to sign a waiver that removes their ability to sue if they are hurt. “But how could that happen? Some of these hikers are leaving the trailhead at 3:30 in the morning,” he said.
Gary Goettelman, the administrator of the Town of Alma, said his community of 325 residents will “endure an economic hit” if Reiber closes access to the Decalibron Loop. Alma has worked with Reiber, and his father before him, for nearly 20 years to protect them from lawsuits should a 14er hiker be injured on the peaks or old mining structures on Reiber’s land.
The town this winter ordered a new kiosk that will sell day permits and overnight camping passes at the Kite Lake Trailhead that leads to the Decalibron Loop trail. Goettelman wonders if those permits could include waivers, like ski lift tickets.
Reiber closed his property in 2004 until 2006 and again in 2021. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates the 2021 closure – which reduced visitation by 20,000 hikers – cost the communities around the 14ers about $5 million in lost spending from visitors. After each closure, hiking groups and the town stepped in to help ease the landowner’s concern over liability.
“We have taken so many measures up there and we work hard to keep that area open and protected,” Goettelman said, noting that Alma’s work in the basin also focuses on protecting the town’s watershed around Kite Lake. “I hope we can sit down and work with John.”