Another Colorado 14,000-foot summit has closed to hikers.
A sign has been posted along the trail to Mount Lindsey, which falls on the San Luis Valley's sprawling Trinchera Blanca Ranch. The sign marks the mountain as private and warns: "PUBLIC ACCESS IS NOT ALLOWED."
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative Executive Director Lloyd Athearn said he has been in touch with the ranch. Through social media and online climbing channels, he has advised people stay away from Lindsey. He told The Gazette no reopening is in sight.
The move follows another conflict this summer on mounts Lincoln, Democrat and Bross, the fourteeners making up the heavily trafficked route known as Decalibron that was closed until recently. In a statement to The Gazette, the ranch, owned by billionaire investor and philanthropist Louis Bacon, cited the same liability concerns of those mining claim owners across the Mosquito Range.
Athearn and others involved say angst has simmered since 2019, when a federal court ruled in favor of a cyclist "seriously injured" at the Air Force Academy. James Nelson was awarded $7.3 million after he "struck a sinkhole" and "was flung onto the asphalt path," according to the ruling.
That decision, Athearn said, "has really caused a lot of lawyers and insurance people to sit up and say, 'Oh my god, the protections we thought we had under the Colorado Recreational Use statute seem to have been whittled away substantially.'"
Legislators adopted the statute to "make land and water areas available for recreational purposes by limiting (owners') liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes."
In the Nelson case, the court identified an exception in the statute regarding "willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition." The Air Force Academy was found to have "willfully ignored the dangerous condition on the path and chose not to take steps to warn or guard users like Mr. Nelson against that danger."
This effectively "limited the scope" of the recreational use statue, according to Trinchera Blanca Ranch's statement, "and increased landowner exposure."
Last year, in a Colorado Mountain Club-led panel discussion about private property on fourteeners, landowners recognized unstable ground and unpredictable dangers across their mountains.
"We are in a very litigious society," said Patrick Schilken, an attorney who during the discussion showed maps of his mining claims stacked with others around Park County. "People will sue on anything for any reason, and I can't be up there every day monitoring everybody that's up there."
Colorado Mountain Club's Julie Mach said the peaks' inherent threats posed "loopholes" in the recreational use statute.
"Where essentially," she said, "even if landowners are providing free public access and are protected in a lot of ways, if there are hazards on the property, they still have this duty to warn."
Schilken said the steep, rocky slopes of his properties made it "technically or administratively impossible" to post warning signs or fences. John Reiber, representing owners along Decalibron, told Colorado Mountain Club and Colorado Fourteeners Initiative last month that the mountains were open again after additional signs were placed and agreements made with the town of Alma to cover insurance.
Still, closures could return, said Mach, who has worked closely with Reiber over the years.
"I think it also comes down to the volume of use," Mach said. "When there were a few dozen people climbing peaks on the weekends, (landowners) might've looked another direction. Now that we've got 300 people on a Saturday, it's different. The likelihood and risks of potential lawsuits has increased."
In his 12 years leading Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Athearn said he has never heard of a private landowner getting sued by a hiker. In last year's panel discussion, Reiber said he felt 95% of hikers were responsible and followed posted rules.
"The challenge we have are the few," he said. "The few seem to be many."
In 2016, Athearn's organization raised about $50,000 and bought three mining claims high on Mount Shavano — a means to construct a better, safer summiting path — and has since posted signs about dangers at 14,000 feet. "We certainly have felt that was sufficient protection" from liability, Athearn said.
The feeling, he said, is different at Mount Lindsey.
"While we were able to work with Reiber to post some warning signs, I don't think that would be sufficient to allay (the ranch's) concerns," Athearn said. "I think it's more of a legislative type of fix."
He said he and other partner groups are preparing to lobby for adjustments to the recreational use statute in the next legislative session.
"The good news is, I'm not aware of any other fourteeners that have these issues," Athearn said.
Along with Lindsey, Shavano and the trio representing Decalibron, he said he knew of two others privately held that concern hikers: Culebra Peak and Mount Sherman. The former is owned by a ranch that charges people to climb and the latter is owned by a bankrupt company.
Once ownership is settled after an ongoing court battle over Sherman, Athearn hinted Colorado Fourteeners Initiative could pursue an acquisition similar to Shavano. But money isn't around to solve all issues, he said, underscoring the importance of new legal language.
In last year's panel discussion, Reiber and Schilken expressed their wish for hikers to have the same awareness of hunters, who are expected to ask for permission before crossing private land.
"That they know where they're at and they have the proper equipment to protect themselves," Reiber said. "I can't tell you how many times I've brought people down off of Lincoln who were not prepared."