Colorado’s fourteeners, mountains exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation, offer thrilling challenges to the adventurous at heart. Annually, these majestic peaks attract over 300,000 climbers contributing significantly to the state’s economy. However, recent ongoing closures due to liability concerns have raised crucial questions on the economic implications and potential solutions for securing access to these natural treasures.
The Economic Role of Colorado’s 14ers
A 2008 study by Catherine Keske, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, estimated that each climber contributes approximately $221 per trip to the state’s economy. Around $191 of this is spent within 25 miles of the peak on local businesses including hotels, food services, and other ancillary services. This directly benefits local communities nestled near these mountains.
If the climbers’ potential willingness to pay more, as indicated by Keske’s study, is taken into consideration, the total economic significance could be even more substantial. Considering climbers are often willing to pay more for improved facilities and experiences, there lies untapped potential to further boost the local economy and fund the maintenance of these natural assets.
The Ongoing 14er Closures
Despite the immense economic value and popularity of these peaks, several fourteeners have recently closed, bringing detrimental impacts to local economies. This is a result of liability concerns by private landowners who control access to these peaks.
Particularly, the DeCaLiBron loop, a famous cluster of four fourteeners in Park County – Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross – is currently closed due to such concerns. Similarly, Mount Lindsey in the Sangre de Cristo range is also closed, and Mount Sherman, which is predominantly on private land, hangs in the balance due to ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. The closures threaten to rob local communities of much-needed economic opportunities.
These closures were brought about by the Colorado Recreational Use Statute, which presently allows landowners to be held liable for “willful or malicious failure to warn against a known dangerous condition.” This statute’s limitations have led to increasing apprehension among landowners, causing them to restrict access to their lands, thus shutting down significant economic opportunities.
The Economic Impact of Ongoing Closures
The DeCaLiBron peaks, in particular, received between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors in 2022. Using the median expenditure per trip of $221, the local economies stand to lose an estimated $4.42 million to $5.525 million from these closures alone. Meanwhile, the less frequented Mount Lindsey, which received around 1,000 visitors, represents an additional potential loss of $221,000.
This drop in climbers means substantial revenue losses for businesses in local towns like Alma and Fairplay. The ripple effects of these closures can significantly impact local economies, from lost direct spending by climbers to reduced income for local businesses and decreased tax revenues for local governments.
Furthermore, the ripple effect extends beyond the immediate economy. Colorado’s image as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts can be tarnished, potentially affecting tourism at large and thus creating an even broader economic impact.
The Way Forward
In response to these closures, a coalition called the Fix CRUS Coalition has formed, composed of prominent nonprofits such as the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the Colorado Mountain Club, the Boulder Climbing Community, the Access Fund, and others. The coalition aims to amend the Colorado Recreational Use Statute to provide greater liability protection for landowners, which could potentially reopen access to these precious natural resources.
According to coalition members, a simple change of words in the statute – specifically, changing “willful” to “malicious” – could significantly alter the statute’s interpretation and make landowners feel more protected. This would ultimately encourage them to reopen access to their lands.
Nevertheless, opposition exists, with some arguing that the current statute already provides sufficient protection for landowners and recreational users alike. Critics suggest that changing the wording might give landowners unwarranted immunity from their responsibilities.
Fixing the Colorado Recreational Use Statute to Restore Access
As Colorado grapples with these ongoing 14er closures, it’s evident that the state’s economy, local communities, and recreational users all stand to lose if access to these natural assets continues to be restricted. While it’s critical to strike a balance between protecting landowners’ interests and maintaining public access to these mountains, it is clear that the closures’ economic impact is too significant to ignore.
The solution may lie in negotiation and compromise – finding a way to amend the statute that protects landowners while ensuring access for the public. After all, these majestic mountains are more than just geographic features – they’re the lifeblood of Colorado’s tourism economy and vital components of the state’s identity.
If these issues are effectively resolved, Colorado’s fourteeners will continue to serve as major economic contributors and iconic outdoor recreational spaces, fulfilling both their economic and recreational roles while safeguarding the state’s natural heritage.