July 27, 2023 UPDATE: After a four month closure, Mt Democrat and Mt Lincoln re-opened to the public thanks to a temporary waiver system. Help us protect long term access to these peaks by visiting www.fixCRUS.org to learn about our effort to strengthen Colorado’s recreational use statute (CRUS). We need your help to make it happen. Learn more.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: For the past sixteen years, public access to Mount Bross has been closed due to liability concerns of the owners. However, that doesn’t stop thousands of people from illegally summiting the mountain anyways, usually shrugging and thinking it doesn’t hurt anyone. I myself climbed Mount Bross on two occasions, aware it was technically closed, but convinced the owners would do more if they actually wanted to enforce it.
I was wrong: continued trespassing increases the legal risk faced by owners, and has led them to consider closing access to the other privately owned peaks: Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln. In fact, the Kite Lake Trailhead itself is privately owned, and can be closed to access at any time. The owners have tried repeatedly to install signage, talk with trespassers, and collaborate with outdoor groups to improve the situation, with little success to date.
The issue took a big leap forward this year following a recent recreational lawsuit near Colorado Springs. It cost landowners $7.3, making owner hyper aware of the risk they face allowing people to hike near collapsing mine shafts and tunnels. Mount Bross is closed, but if trespassing continues in large numbers, access to these peaks may close indefinitely.
Legal Protection for Property Owners Who Allow Public Access Has A Serious Legal Loophole
In Colorado, owners who allow access to their land for recreational uses are protected by the state recreational use statute. However, the law as written contains a serious loophole, recently made clear in the major case Nelson v. United States. A bicyclist seriously injured on a trail on the property of the US Air Force Academy won $7.3 million in a lawsuit because the court found that the Academy “willfully failed to warn or guard against a dangerous condition.”
The owners of Mt. Bross and other peaks realize there are numerous dangerous structures and conditions on the mountains dating back to mining in the late 1800’s. They are seriously concerned that they could be liable for a similar situation, given their inability to warn of the hundreds of specific structures, many of which remain unknown. As a result of that, Mount Bross is closed, and access to the remaining peak may close as well.
Repeated Trespassing Increase Their Legal Liability Risk Too
Another legal issue posed by repeated trespassing is the issue of indirect permission. Some courts view situations where an owner knows trespassing is occurring but does not act to stop it as indirect permission to access the area. This increases the duty of care owed by owners, dramatically heightening their liability risk. At this time, this does not appear to be a serious threat as the owners have installed “No Trespassing” signs and called the Sheriff to report the issue, but it is still a concern among some landowners.
Vandalism on the mountains is repeated and costly. Waste from hikers is increasing, especially dog waste, along with illegal use of roads by OHV’s (the road up Mount Bross is closed officially as weell). Closing all access to Kite Lake would provide the owners major liability protection, which is why they are left considering it as a last resort.
A Word on Private Ownership of 14ers
Some people reading surely react with disgust at the idea of 14ers being privately owned, especially by mining groups. To them I would say, for better or worse, that is the situation. The land in question has been part of the private domain for more than 130 years, and would need to be purchased back by the government. As the land sits on veins still rich with precious metals and minerals, the cost is a high barrier.
For the time being, these peaks are privately owned, and respecting that ownership and working with, rather than against owners is key to protecting access to these peaks for us and future generations. Mount Bross is closed, but continued trespassing may result in closures of Mount Democrat, Lincoln and Cameron as well. Numerous other peaks are privately owned, whole in part, but it causes little issue because public access is still secure. This can be the case again here, if hikers and climbers do their part too.
Help Protect Access to Decalibron: Stay on Trail and Respect the Mount Bross Closure
While Mount Bross is closed, efforts are underway to improve the situation. The Colorado Mountain Club, Forest Service, Town of Alma, property owners, and many other stakeholders continue working together to find a way to protect access by improving liability protection for owners, who sincerely want to continue to keep the peaks open. While Mount Bross is closed, these groups are working hard to reopen it.
We can do our part to protect public access to the area by staying on the trail. Avoid taking the unofficial bypass to the Mount Bross closure. Follow leave no trace practices and respect the wishes of private property owners. Given time, we hope to set the example needed to secure access to Mount Bross once more.
Learn more about this situation here on the Colorado Fourteener Initiative website, or here on the Colorado Mountain Club Blog. Mount Bross is closed, but with your help, we can keep the other peaks open for the time being. Thank you!