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The Conservation Fund bought a 14er in the Mosquito Range above Alma, helping to protect access

Sydney Schaus, a trail crew member from the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, works to repair erosion damage on the Decalibron Loop on July 12, 2022, near Alma.
Hugh Carey
The Colorado Sun
Sydney Schaus, a trail crew member from the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, works to repair erosion damage on the Decalibron Loop on July 12, 2022, near Alma.

The Colorado Sun originally published this story at 9:16 AM MDT on Sep 21, 2023.

John Reiber, the owner of mining land spanning three 14ers in the Mosquito Range, has sold about 300 acres atop Mount Democrat to The Conservation Fund, ending a thorny access issue on the popular Decalibron Trail.

But the deal does not include Reiber’s property across Mount Lincoln, and he is still requiring that all hikers scan QR codes and sign liability waivers promising not to sue him if they are injured on his property. Reiber’s liability concerns have been a highlight of a statewide push to reform the Colorado Recreational Use Statute, with other landowners across the state also closing access to their properties for fear of lawsuits from hikers, trail runners, and anglers.

Earlier this summer, as he launched the innovative scan-and-sign liability waivers, Reiber said he would close access to the Decalibron Loop if lawmakers next year did not amend the state statute to better protect landowners from lawsuits.

The sale of Mount Democrat is a win for access. And it does not lessen the momentum of the push to reform the Colorado Recreational Use Statute, said Lloyd Athearn with the Colorado 14ers Initiative.

“There is still urgency here,” Athearn said. “People who own land where recreation occurs are freaked out. While this land purchase solves part of the problem at Decalibron Loop, it does not solve it statewide. We are still learning about all sorts of other recreation destinations where landowners are freaked out. Communities are just still understanding the ramifications of what would happen if recreational amenities that are fully or partially on private land are suddenly closed. I think legislators are realizing that, too.”

The Conservation Fund plans to transfer the land to the U.S. Forest Service once it is reimbursed by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The plan is similar to the one the nonprofit used in acquiring and transferring Sweetwater Lake to the White River National Forest.

The Conservation Fund partnered with Park County and the Pike San Isabel National Forest to secure the deal with Reiber. The fund has been involved in almost 200 transactions with the Forest Service in 27 states, most of them involving reimbursement and support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses about $900 million in annual royalties paid by off-shore energy companies to buy and protect land.

“It’s what we do,” Kelly Ingebritson, the Colorado project manager for The Conservation Fund, said, adding that “we stand ready” to work on other lands, and her group supports efforts to update the Colorado Recreational Use Statute or CRUS.

The deal includes land on Mount Democrat that accesses Mount Cameron, a 14er owned by the Forest Service. The summit of Mount Bross, which is owned by several individuals, remains closed to the public, but Reiber’s land traverses just below the summit, and hikers who sign liability waivers can access that portion of the Decalibron Trail.

Reiber closed access to his land accessing three 14ers in 2021 in March, saying his attorneys warned him he was “rolling the dice” with hikers who could sue him if they were injured on his property, which includes several old mining structures. His closure followed a hearing where Colorado lawmakers declined to forward legislation that would have amended the 1977 Colorado Recreational Use Statute to better protect landowners.

Reiber said he was unable to secure — or afford — insurance on his property. All the liability concerns stem from a 2019 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that affirmed a $7.3 million award for a biker who was injured on a washed-out trail at the U.S. Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs in 2008. The biker argued the academy knew about the trail damage and failed to adequately warn recreational users about the hazard.

That decision sparked widespread liability concerns by landowners across the state. The owner of Mount Lindsay also closed access to his 14er in the San Luis Valley. The owner of land used by the Leadville 100 running and bike races also required all participants and race spectators to sign waivers this year.

The Fix CRUS Coalition has grown to a group of 39 members, including large recreation nonprofits, local governments, land trusts, businesses, and 2,500 individual members. The group has highlighted Reiber’s concerns on the Decalibron Loop as an example of how communities and recreational users lose when private landowners close access for fear of lawsuits.

Hiker traffic to the popular Decalibron Loop trail that traverses the property dropped by 15,000 in 2021 when Reiber closed access, and tax revenue in nearby Alma fell 19% in June and July 2021. The Colorado Sun counted a 55% decline in spending in Alma from May through October 2021 compared with 2020, a year when the state’s highest peaks drew record numbers of hikers.

Anneliese Steel with the Fix CRUS Coalition said the group was thrilled to see access issues on Mount Democrat resolved.

“This does not deter our efforts,” Steel said. “The reason John sold was liability concerns. He still owns Lincoln and the connection on Bross. This has never been about one landowner. This is much bigger than these 14ers and we are going to charge ahead. We have a very strong coalition and high hopes for 2024.”

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