The Future of Land Access? Colorado Bill Could Solve Liability Issue for Landowners

Anneliese Steel knows the exact moment when she realized the difficulty many landowners face in avoiding liability for injured hikers.

Steel, who promotes land access, was walking on a trail near Boulder, Colo. She came across a warning sign from the landowner about a nearby wasp’s nest. In Colorado, like many other states, those signs are how landowners can guard themselves against potential lawsuits from injured hikers. Avoiding liability means posting signs for every possible hazard, from wasps to avalanche hazards to loose rocks.

“That level of warning is unmanageable for most landowners,” Steel said.

But not anymore — or at least that’s the hope in Colorado. The Colorado Legislature passed a bill last week to ease the burden on landowners who don’t charge for outdoor recreation on their property. Now, a single warning sign at the trailhead will provide sufficient legal protection.

That’s great news for outdoor recreation in the state. The strategy could serve as a model for improving land access throughout the country, according to several experts on outdoor recreation.

“Any state with a specific focus in outdoor recreation would be served by looking at this legislation,” said Luis Benitez, chief impact officer for the Trust for Public Land. “Liability for landowners remains a large issue, and without support like this, it’s difficult to convince them that equitable access is a good idea.”

Left, a landowner sign warning of a wasp’s nest on their property near Boulder, Colo., and right, a photo of a closed trail along the Decalibron Loop; (photos/Fix CRUS Coalition)

For more than 50 years, state lawmakers have relied on a simple model for balancing landowner protections with outdoor access: recreational use statutes (RUS).

The idea behind them was simple: In exchange for allowing free public access, landowners would get legal protections. It made them “immune from liability for ordinary negligence, but not willful or wanton misconduct,” according to the National Recreation and Park Association.

While many states have created variations in their approach, those statutes kept most Colorado mountains open to hikers — at least until 2018. That’s when a federal court ruled that the U.S. Air Force Academy was accountable for a cyclist getting injured on its property near Colorado Springs. As a result, the court required a payout of $7.3 million to the injured cyclist.

That decision scared Colorado landowners and resulted in them closing four major Colorado mountains that required private land access to climb: Mount Lindsey, Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, and Mount Lincoln. For many nonprofits throughout the state, it was clear what needed to happen: an update to Colorado’s Recreation Use Statue (CRUS).

So in 2023, Anneliese Steel and other outdoor advocates helped organize dozens of Colorado nonprofits into the Fix CRUS Coalition.

Recreation Land Access Bill: ‘A Clever Fix’

They argued for an update of CRUS to simplify the burden on landowners: a single sign to cover all their liabilities.

“It’s a clever fix,” Steel told GearJunkie last week. “I think of it as a cozy standard for landowners. If I put up this signage, it’s pretty bulletproof.”

After two failed attempts to get the update through the legislature, the Colorado Senate and House finally passed it unanimously in late February. Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign it into law this month.

“My expectation is that other states will look at Colorado and say, ‘Hey, this is a smart way to add additional protections for landowners at a state level,’” Steel said.

Mount Lindsey, part of the Decalibron trail, remains closed. It’s unclear if this month’s bill will induce the landowner to reopen it to the public; (photo/Shutterstock)

Could It Work in Other States?

Outdoor recreation is central to Colorado’s identity, so it makes sense that the state’s land access advocates would come together for a solution.

However, plenty of other states have similar issues that could potentially benefit from the same approach. For example, 12 states leave landowners liable for willful and wanton activities or grossly negligent actions, according to Alex Derr, secretary of the Fix CRUS Coalition. And over 20 states require landowners to warn visitors of any known dangerous conditions on their land.

That creates a “substantial burden” on landowners, Derr wrote in the American Alpine Journal last year.

“We all acknowledge that outdoor recreation is inherently dangerous; especially in rugged, mountainous terrain,” Derr wrote. “At the same time, we appreciate that those with the ability to warn visitors about a dangerous hazard should do so if it is within their power. Recreational use statutes represent our best attempt to balance these competing priorities: personal risk and personal liability.”

An example of the new signage. With just one of these at the trailhead, landowners get protection for their entire property; (photo/Fix CRUS Coalition)

Even the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, which initially opposed the CRUS update, came around this year. After testifying against it in previous years, it stepped aside after reviewing the new bill in January, the Colorado Sun reported.

More Work to Reopen Private Lands

However, landowners still have to willingly reopen their land. Mount Lindsey, for example, remains closed. Only time will tell if the owner feels safe enough with Colorado’s new rules to reopen it. In the meantime, the Fix CRUS Coalition is offering Colorado landowners 100 premade signs with the new legal language — free of charge. They’re available now on the group’s website.

While the legal concerns of landowners are valid, they can also gain supporters by allying with outdoor recreation lovers, said Brian Tickle, the national acquisitions director for The Access Fund.

“Allowing people to recreate on your land gains you advocates in stewardship work and people that care about your land and want to see it conserved,” he said. “They can be on the same team.”