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Bill to shield Colorado landowners from visitors’ lawsuits heads to governor’s desk

Senate Bill 58 requires landowners to erect signs warning visitors of hazards
Colorado Mountain Club conservation coordinator Kendall Chastain packs her bag after installing a “No Trespassing” sign along the Decalibron Loop trail on July 12, 2022, near Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Here come the signs.

Colorado lawmakers on Friday sent Gov. Jared Polis a bill that reforms the Colorado Recreational Use Statute to better protect landowners from lawsuits filed by people injured while recreating on private land.

Senate Bill 58, which Polis has indicated he will sign, will require landowners to warn visitors of hazards on their property. If they erect signs – at least 8 inches by 10 inches – warning of dangerous conditions, structures and activities, they could not be sued by an injured visitor for “a willful or malicious failure to guard against a known condition.” They can install the signs at trailheads, instead of at each and every hazard. They also need to keep a photographic record of the signs.

“This bipartisan bill protects landowners while opening up new outdoor recreation opportunities for Coloradans and visitors. The Governor looks forward to seeing it come across his desk,” said Polis spokeswoman Shelby Wieman, in an email to The Sun.

It’s the third attempt to amend the statute since a 2019 federal court affirmed a $7.3 million award for a cyclist injured on a washed-out trail at the Air Force Academy in a decision that prodded many Colorado landowners to close recreational access or require visitors to sign waivers.

The bill also will expand the list of possible recreational activities on private land to include more modern pursuits, like trail running, paragliding, backcountry skiing and kayaking.

“Outdoor recreation is foundational to living in Colorado. With passage of SB 58, the Colorado Legislature has boosted liability protections for private landowners while fostering a climate that should help maintain and expand access to private lands for recreation,” Lloyd Athearn, with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, said in a statement. “SB 58 provides clarity and certainty about how landowners can allow and control recreation on their property. We think this is an important first step that will lead to reopening a couple of closed 14ers and lessens the chance that 14ers are ever closed in the future.”

The legislation is designed to help landowners who have been limiting free recreational access to their property following the 2019 decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Since that decision, landowners have been closing trails, requiring visitors to sign liability waivers and even donating their land, saying their attorneys were advising them to limit access.

Conor Hall, the head of the Colorado outdoor recreation office, submitted written support for Senate Bill 53 to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, saying that Colorado’s “brand identity” as an outdoor destination is at risk when private landowners close recreational access.

“We have seen significant losses to rural economies this past year due to closures of peaks and trails resulting from concerns about the strength of the Colorado Recreational Use Statute,” Hall told the committee. “This balanced approach to signage will strengthen the CRUS and increase access to part of what makes Colorado a great place to live and do business. SB 58 has the strong support of the Office of the Outdoor Recreation Industry. I encourage a yes vote from this esteemed committee.”

Two previous legislative attempts to adjust the Colorado Recreational Use Statute focused on an exception in the law that said landowners could be liable for injuries if a lawsuit could prove an owner’s “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition.” Both those legislative amendments to the statute failed in committee in 2019 and last year. Several attorneys with the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association argued against the 2023 proposal, saying a single award proving a landowner liable for “willful and malicious” disregard for visitors safety in 40 years of the Colorado Recreational Use Statute proved the law was working.

The lawyers association did not oppose this year’s proposal, which did not focus on the willful or malicious exception.

The Fix CRUS Coalition, which formed in recent years to advocate for an amendment to the Colorado Recreational Use Statute, has 46 outdoor industry members and helped lobby lawmakers for the amendment to the Colorado Outdoor Recreational Statute.

John Reiber last fall sold 300 acres atop Colorado 14er Mount Democrat to The Conservation Fund, which then transferred the land to the Forest Service. Reiber had closed access to the 14er over the years and last year launched a plan for hikers to scan QR codes and sign liability waivers to access his acres that are part of the popular Decalibron Loop trail, which traverses four 14ers in the Mosquito Range above Alma.

Reiber said the QR codes were not a permanent fix and, as a landowner and member of the Fix CRUS Coalition, he urged lawmakers to amend the law to better protect landowners to offer free access to visitors. He said he was struggling to secure insurance for his land, saying providers were fearful of lawsuits.

Reiber said he supported the legislation “with cautious optimism.”

“There are some items in this legislation that are positive for landowners and positive for recreation in Colorado,” he said, hoping that the signs will help better educate visitors about staying on trails and not, for example, playing on century-old structures at mine entrances. (That’s what he has seen on his property along the Decalibron Loop.)

“I would say 95% of people are respectful and do not create issues,” he said. “So we are really trying to educate that 5%.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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