Colorado is known for its stunning mountain ranges and ample hiking opportunities. The state has about 58 mountain peaks reaching 14,000-foot elevations. Mountaineers from all over the country come to try to see how many they can hike.
Most of the 14ers are on public land owned by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management and are open to everyone to use.
However, at least eight are either partially or completely privately owned. They include Mount Democrat, Mount Lincoln, Mount Bross, Mount Sherman, Mount Shavano, Little Bear Peak, Mount Lindsey and Culebra Peak, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
Recently, the owners of Mount Lindsey posted signs around their property saying that the area is closed to the public.
"Trinchera Blanca Ranch has posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the private trail sections on Mount Lindsey as a result of a recent ruling out of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which limited the scope of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Act and increased landowner exposure,” said Trinchera Blanca Ranch spokesman Cody Wertz.
The court case stems back to an incident in 2008. James Nelson and his wife were bicycling on property owned by the U.S. Air Force Academy. Nelson hit a sinkhole, fell off his bike and was seriously injured as a result.
The family sued the Air Force Academy for liability and was awarded approximately $7 million in damages. The case was appealed but recently upheld by another federal judge.
“That case, I think it was more than anything about the Air Force Academy’s failure to warn of this known hazard,” said Mark Squillace, a Raphael Moses Professor of Law at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “An employee of the Academy was aware of a sinkhole on the bike path and didn’t warn anybody about it — didn’t tell his superiors or didn’t warn the public.”
Mount Lindsey is not the first to close off access to the public as a result of that lawsuit. Earlier this year, the owners of Mount Democrat, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross also closed off access out of liability concerns.
The Colorado Recreational Use Act was meant to encourage landowners to make their land available for recreational purposes by limiting their liability.
“It’s designed, really, to benefit the recreational user, because if we didn’t have these laws more lands would probably be closed to public use,” Squillace said.
However, the federal lawsuit demonstrated that there are some limits to its application.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative also has been working with the landowners to try to figure out a solution.
It is a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to preserve and protect the natural integrity of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks through stewardship and education.
The group also owns the peak of Mount Shavano and faces the same potential liability issues.
“We put up a sign saying you’re welcome to come here, these are the conditions under which for you accept the responsibility that you could get hurt or killed in any number of ways,” said Lloyd Athearn, the group’s executive director. “Feel free to come in [and] recreate, but do so at your own risk.”
The group has helped the owners of Mount Lincoln and Mount Democrat post similar signs to reopen the areas. Mount Bross is still closed to the public. Athearn is now trying to work with the owners of Mount Lindsey on a similar solution.
Some are calling for a change to the Colorado Recreation Use Act to better protect landowners. A 2019 bill proposed by Rep. Perry Will and Rep. Donald Valdez would have offered an increased level of protection for landowners.
However, the bill died in committee after facing pushback from some lobbying groups. Both lawmakers told Denver7 that it may be necessary to come up with a new bill in the upcoming legislative session to help.
“We may have to revisit this issue in the future. This lawsuit is unfortunate, as our intentions with HB-1303 were to protect private landowners. At the end of the day, lawsuits like this make landowners very reluctant to grant any kind of recreational access moving forward,” said Rep. Will.
Squillace said he understands the liability concerns landowners have in the wake of the lawsuit since there are some old mining structures on the properties that are rarely monitored and have the potential to be dangerous.
“I suppose from their perspective the safe thing to do is to close the area,” he said.
He agrees that tweaking the recreation act could help but believes landowners should have a responsibility to post signage.
“I don’t think that the answer is to say that landowners shouldn’t have to warn people about the hazards that exist on the property,” Squillace said.
For now, Athearn is warning people to not to try to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey until a resolution can be reached.