The Colorado Recreational Use Statute (CRUS) was designed with a noble goal in mind: to incentivize landowners to open their lands for public access and outdoor recreation by limiting their liability for injuries sustained on their property. Unfortunately, the recent Nelson lawsuit has had the unintended consequence of causing many landowners to close off access to their lands to protect themselves from potential legal exposure.
Thousands Hike Closed Trails and Peaks, Putting Themselves at Risk
Despite these closures, thousands of people continue to hike on Colorado’s iconic 14ers, the peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation. According to data from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), approximately 8,000 people climbed the Decalibron peaks even though they were officially closed. This situation poses a significant safety risk for hikers and climbers, as the lands are no longer patrolled or maintained. Mt. Lindsey, a more difficult and remote peak, was climbed by several hundred despite an ongoing closure. As time passes, trespassing will become more and more normalized, leading to an ever-growing number of trespassers.
It should be noted that surveys show that up to a quarter or more of those trespassing (2,000+ people) reported being unaware the peaks were closed. This raises the issue of whether these visitors, including many out-of-state tourists, are being given the chance to make an informed decisions, or if they are taking these risks without knowing it.
Unmaintained Trails and Unmanaged Hazards
As trails go unmaintained, hazards like wash-outs, landslides, instabilities, collapsed mine tunnels, social trails, and other threats are left unmanaged. Consider the following scenarios:
A hiker sets out on an unmaintained trail, unaware of a recent landslide that has left a deep ravine on the path. As they navigate the hazardous terrain, they lose their footing and fall into the ravine, suffering serious injuries. Because they were hiking on closed land, they have no legal recourse to hold the landowner accountable for failing to warn them of the known hazard.
A mountain biker traverses a closed trail with a collapsed mine tunnel that has created a dangerous and unstable surface. The landowner, aware of the situation, has done nothing to warn users or address the hazard. The mountain biker unknowingly rides over the unstable ground, causing a collapse that results in severe injuries. Due to the provisions of CRUS, the injured biker cannot seek compensation from the landowner for their negligence.
No Legal Recourse for Injured Outdoor Enthusiasts
The hikers and mountain bikers in these situations are not entitled to any kind of warning or care from the landowners, except in cases of malicious harm. Even in egregious situations with clear gross negligence, visitors are not able to hold anyone accountable. The result is a dangerous environment where accidents are waiting to happen because there are no incentives for landowners to maintain their land or post warnings of known hazards. By simply posting a closure sign, the landowners get complete liability protection so long as they do not maliciously harm a visitor.
CRUS Backfires: Trespassing and Unmaintained Trails
In this way, the CRUS has backfired. Instead of promoting legal access to outdoor recreation spaces while maintaining safety standards and hazard warnings, the law has created a precarious situation where thousands of people are trespassing onto closed lands, using unmaintained trails, and facing high-risk conditions with no legal recourse if they are injured or killed.
The Need to Fix Colorado's Recreational Use Statute
This situation is not sustainable. Injuries and fatalities are inevitable, and when they occur, the blame will fall on the Colorado state statutes that led to the closures and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association who have opposed efforts to remedy the problem. Ironically, the CTLA has argued that this law is protecting hikers as it is. However, they are not thinking of the 8,000+ people hiking these peaks despite ongoing closures – including the thousands who are unaware they are trespassing at all.
Join the Fix CRUS Coalition and Advocate for a Balanced Legal Framework
It’s time for a change. We must work together to restore balance to Colorado’s Recreational Use Statute and ensure that outdoor enthusiasts can continue to enjoy the state’s natural beauty without putting themselves in harm’s way.
Join the Fix CRUS Coalition, a group dedicated to amending the statute to restore and protect outdoor recreation access in Colorado while also ensuring that visitors receive basic protection from grossly negligent actions by landowners. By working together, we can create a balanced legal framework that promotes responsible outdoor recreation and maintains the safety of all who venture into Colorado’s great outdoors.
You can join us as an individual grassroots supporter or as an organizational member. Additionally, take a moment to join our Grassroots Action Facebook Group and sign our Change.org petition urging lawmakers to take action. With your support, we can fix the CRUS, restore public outdoor recreation access in Colorado, and protect hikers and climbers from malicious and negligent behavior.