Liability issues cause some Colorado hiking trails to close

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DENVER (AP) – The ramifications of a lawsuit that ended in the U.S. government paying millions of dollars to an injured mountain biker after an accident on a washed out trail continue to challenge hikers in Colorado.

And more recreational activities could be affected by the 2019 court ruling, as private landowners worry about lawsuits from people crossing their land on foot, by bicycle or by boat.

Trinchera Blanca Ranch, which is one of Colorado’s largest at nearly 180,000 acres, erected “No Entry” signs this month on the trail to popular Mount Lindsey, warning hikers that the public access to the top of the San Luis Valley is not allowed.

The environmentalist owner of Trinchera Blanca – billionaire financier Louis Bacon – put up the signs after consulting his lawyers on the implications of a 2019 federal court ruling that upheld a verdict of $ 7.3 million awarded to a Colorado Springs mountain biker who crashed into a sinkhole on a washed out trail at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The ranch closed private sections of the trail to Mt Lindsey “following a recent US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that limited the scope of the recreational use law of Colorado and increased the exposure of landowners, ”Trinchera Blanca spokesperson Cody Wertz. noted.

Earlier this year, this 2019 decision prompted John Reiber, the owner of mining claims all over Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat and Mount Bross, to close hikers’ access to his lands. Access to the peaks was restored last month, after the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and Colorado Mountain Club worked with Reiber, putting up new signs urging hikers to stay on the trail and stay out of mining structures. private. The Fourteeners Initiative is a nonprofit group that seeks to preserve and protect public access to Colorado’s tallest mountains, which rise to over 14,000 feet above sea level.

Negotiations with the Trinchera Blanca Ranch “are going to be a longer process,” said Lloyd Athearn, head of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, who himself owns private property atop Mount Shavano and has worked with his lawyers to make signs warning hikers of some, but not all, of the known dangers on this peak. “I think their concerns could be more involved.”

There are at least eight peaks in Colorado where hikers traverse private land to reach heights of over 14,000 feet. For years, the Colorado Recreational Use Statute – or CRUS – has protected these landowners, granting them immunity from prosecution if they allow people to recreate themselves for free on their land. There are exceptions to the law, however, if aggrieved parties can prove that a landowner willfully failed to warn or protect recreational visitors of a “known dangerous condition … likely to cause damage”.

The U.S. 10th Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the Air Force Academy was aware of a washed out section of the paved bike path on its property, but did not give a proper warning.

Jim Nelson, an engineer living in Colorado Springs, went for a bike ride on September 3, 2008. In a shaded section of the trail on Air Force Academy property, Nelson cycled through a damaged portion of the trail and suffered serious injuries, especially to the brain. shame. Less than two weeks earlier, a federal biologist stationed at the academy had taken photos of the washed out trail as part of a project to document erosion issues around the academy.

“If anything had been done to warn or prevent people from cycling on this designated cycle path, Jim’s injuries could have been avoided,” said Nelson’s attorney, David Hersh, of the firm of lawyers Burg Simpson.

The appeals court actually upheld the Colorado Recreational Use Statute’s protection for landowners, Hersh said, granting them immunity from liability claims, “unless they act willfully by failing to protect or to warn of known dangerous conditions which could cause damage “. The legislature, when drafting the recreational use law, “created a very narrow and high burden on the exception,” Hersh said.

“From my perspective as a litigator, responsible landowners really shouldn’t fear the plain reading of CRUS by the 10th Circuit and this ‘voluntary’ exception to the general immunity that landowners enjoy,” he said. Hersh said in an email. “Landowners have almost complete immunity. The exception bar is quite high, in my opinion, and will be very difficult to achieve for any applicant. A landowner who is worried about sheer cliffs near existing trails or mining works can easily give a warning, for example.

Jim Moss, a Denver lawyer specializing in leisure-related legal matters, says the liability of landowners who open their land to recreational users “is absolutely zero.”

“Colorado’s original recreational use status is rock solid,” Moss said. “The only time the Nelson case would apply to any other case would involve another mountain biker crashing into federal military property.”

Still, Athearn finds that landowners are wary of possible exposure to lawsuits by recreational users who venture down steep mountain trails or explore dangerous and abandoned mining structures.

By warning visitors with signs that identify Trinchera Blanca Ranch as private property and anyone venturing onto private land as trespassing, the owner has more legal leeway to avoid prosecution as intruders have fewer rights when they are injured.

Trinchera Blanca Ranch is a preeminent model for forest and wildlife fire management, with one of the state’s largest conservation easements protecting a large portion of the property from any development. Bacon, the owner of the ranch, is recognized as one of the best environmentalists in the country, locking up hundreds of thousands of acres in easements that prevent any roads or structures. These conservation easements, however, do not allow public access.

Wertz, the spokesperson for the ranch, said the managers and owner of the property “plan to continue discussing the issue” with trail user groups, including the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

Athearn himself worked with lawyers in 2016 to limit the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s liability when it purchased land for hikers to use to reach the summit of Mount Shavano near Salida. A lawyer for the group’s board agreed there was a risk, but helped create signs warning hikers of dangers, including lightning, avalanches and rockfall. Another lawyer advised against buying the property, warning Athearn that an injured hiker could bankrupt the non-profit trail group.

“Different landowners with different lawyers with different risk assessments will come to different conclusions,” he said.

Athearn fears that the impact of the Nelson decision will soon extend beyond the lands acceding to the fourteen.

Soon, landowners with climbing boulders, single-track cycle paths or navigable rapids could close access, he suggested. Athearn said a remedy could involve Colorado lawmakers taking over Colorado’s recreational use law and adding more protections to landowners who open up their land for recreational access.

“There are all kinds of recreational features on private land,” Athearn said. “Legislatures across the country have said there is a public benefit in keeping landowners free from liability when they let the public recreate for free. How do we get back to where landowners are discouraged from closing their land so that they are not prosecuted? “

About the photo: Hikers pass a cairn along a ridge on Culebra Peak near San Luis, Colorado, July 27, 2008. Culebra is the only 14,000-foot peak in Colorado to lie entirely on a private land. Climbers pay $ 100 to climb the summit, which doesn’t have enough traffic for a trail to form, making the cairn a useful route marker. (AP Photo, The Gazette, David Phillips)

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