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.
Welcome to the woods. Please scan this code and swear you won’t sue.
After several months of closure, the Decalibron Loop trail accessing four 14ers in the Mosquito Range near Alma will reopen Friday to any hiker who scans and signs a liability waiver on their phones.
Landowner John Reiber is installing signs with a QR code on the road leading from Alma to Kite Lake, the starting point of the 7-mile Decalibron Loop trail that connects Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. If hikers scan the code with their phones and e-sign the waiver, they will be able to legally access Reiber’s property along the Decalibron Loop. If they do not, they will be trespassing.
“This is not a true solution,” Reiber said. “This is a temporary Band-Aid to the problem. The true solution is for us to get the state law changed and fix the Colorado Recreational Use Statute. That is the ultimate fix not just for me but a lot of landowners.”
Reiber, who owns a patchwork of mining properties that lead to the summits of Mount Lincoln and Mount Democrat, is among a growing coalition of landowners worried they could be sued by recreational visitors on their land.
When the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee in March killed Senate Bill 103, which would have amended the 1977 Colorado Recreational Use Statute to increase protection for landowners who allow free recreational access, Reiber installed “no trespassing” signs across the trail and his property.
The legislation was in response to a 2019 federal appeals court decision that awarded $7.3 million to a mountain biker who sued the federal government after crashing on a washed out trail at the Air Force Academy. That decision has pushed many landowners to close access, fearing the decision would lead to more lawsuits from injured visitors.
The owner of Trinchera – Blanca Ranch in the San Luis Valley has closed access to the 14er Mount Lindsey. Earlier this month the owner of property along the Leadville 100 race route announced all spectators, athletes and their support crew would need to sign waivers releasing him from liability if they are injured.
Reiber said has struggled to secure insurance for his mining properties along the Decalibron Loop. A policy for his land climbed to $15,000 this year, up from $6,600 last year. About half the land that surrounds the Decalibron Loop is privately owned and half is managed by the Forest Service. (The privately owned Mount Bross remains closed to all summit hikers and is not part of the QR-coded waiver plan.)
A growing group of 36 nonprofits, landowners and local governments — called the Fix CRUS Coalition — worked with Reiber to partner with the company Smartwaiver for the online waiver plan. The QR code arrangement will not work for long and the coalition is working with lawmakers to craft new legislation for the 2024 session to reform the recreational use statute.
The group is fine with the statute’s exceptions that do not protect landowners who display “gross negligence” or “malicious intent” with dangers on their property, said the coalition’s chairwoman, Anneliese Steel. The group is concerned that the decision in the Air Force Academy case could lead to a lack of protection for landowners who might be aware of hazards but a jury could find they failed to adequately warn visitors about those hazards.
“That is too low of a bar and it has led to a significant chilling effect among landowners that we are seeing right now with these closures,” Steel said. “It’s an unnecessary barrier to access. What’s going on at the Leadville 100, for example, is untenable.”
Trial lawyers who testified against the recreational statute reform legislation in March argued that a single award for an injured visitor in the 45-year history of the law shows that the statute is working. There has not been a surge of lawsuits from injured people suing landowners.
Reiber also closed access to the 14ers above Alma in 2021. That year the Town of Alma saw a steep decline in visitors and spending. The town reported net taxable sales of $11.5 million from May through October 2020 as 14er traffic peaked during the pandemic. The next year, with the closures, spending in Alma in that six-month span fell to $5.1 million, according to Colorado Department of Revenue sales tax reports. In 2022, as traffic on the state’s highest peaks waned again, Alma reported $5.7 million in spending.
Reiber said he is growing weary of paying for signs, increased insurance and now the liability waiver technology.
“Everything I do seems to cost me more money as I keep paying so other people can enjoy my property,” he said.
The QR code waiver plan is a “one-and-done thing,” he said.
“If we don’t get the Colorado Recreational Use Statute changed, it will be no trespassing on my property and it will stay that way,” he said.