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Partnership keeps private Colorado 14ers open to hikers

Two people on a hiking trail.
Courtesy of Kenneth Wright
Hikers on a trail.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail builder Sarah Barringer looked up from her trail work on the switchback heading to the ridge below Mount Bross. A man was taking a shortcut, causing the kind of erosion that she was repairing.

“Please stay on the trail,” Barringer said.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” the man answered. “It’s a free mountain.”

Actually, it’s not. The top of the 14,178-foot Mount Bross is owned by several people who are worried about liability and do not want hikers on the summit. Owners of the summits and trails leading to next-door 14ers Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln share the same concerns, worried they could be sued if a hiker is injured in one of the many mine shafts and dilapidated mining structures on the mountains.

“I’ve had enough damage to the doors we try to keep secure on the mines. I’ve had gates cut. I don’t know if I’ve ever been up there without seeing people standing on top of Bross, walking right by the sign that says ‘Private property. No trespassing,’” said landowner John Reiber, whose father began assembling mining claims on the peaks in the Alma Mining District in the 1950s. “I definitely have concerns over the willingness of people to not follow the rules. I think from a safety standpoint, I’m not sure there is any way to really make folks stay on the trail. But we’re trying.”

Reiber in April 2021 closed the summits of Lincoln and Democrat to hikers. But a unique partnership uniting trail advocacy groups, the Town of Alma, the Forest Service and Reiber’s ownership group has forged a tenuous plan that allowed hikers to return to the peaks late last summer. With regular surveys, education campaigns and a bunch of signs warning hikers to stay on the trail and not enter dangerous structures, the effort has helped assuage owner concerns over safety and possibly being sued by hikers who are injured on the peaks or in the century-old mine shafts and shacks.

But the agreement is temporary and Reiber is not convinced it’s working. That’s why the rude hiker was so troubling.

“It’s the kind of behavior that can shut down these mountains,” said Kendall Chastain with the Colorado Mountain Club.

— The bike crash case that changed liability in Colorado

The partnership of trail advocates, municipal leaders, federal land managers and private landowners who own the Decalibron peaks, near Kite Lake in the Pike National Forest, could set a path for the many other locations around Colorado where landowners are growing increasingly wary of allowing recreational access.

“There are a handful of these areas where you have private lands that play out with major recreation destinations,” said Lloyd Athearn, the head of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. He’s working with the owner of Mount Lindsey — a 14er in the San Luis Valley — who closed access to the peak last year over safety and liability issues. “You would hope that stewardship groups closely tied with the outdoor community have the credibility to help recreationalists follow rules and not do dumb things that aggravate landowners.”

For decades, private landowners in Colorado have been protected from lawsuits if they allow recreational access for no charge. That Colorado Recreational Use Statute was shaken in 2019, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held the U.S. Air Force Academy liable for injuries suffered by a cyclist who crashed on a washed out section of paved trail on the campus in Colorado Springs. State law gives landowners immunity “unless they act willfully in failing to guard or warn of known dangerous conditions that are likely to cause harm.”

That decision prodded Reiber to close Lincoln and Democrat. The owner of Trinchera Blanca Ranch in the San Luis Valley — billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon — closed trails leading to Mount Lindsey on his property “as a result of the ruling … which limited the scope of the Colorado recreational use statute and increased landowner exposure,” a ranch spokesman told The Sun last year.

More than 30,000 hikers scramble up the Decalibron Loop every summer and visitation is growing for the easily accessible hike that traverses four 14ers. The impact of those crowds is growing.

The Colorado Mountain Club, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative and the Town of Alma have joined the Forest Service to not just repair damage and erect signs, but educate and enlist visitors in helping protect not just access but the fragile alpine ecosystem that defines the Mosquito Range.

The Pike National Forest’s South Park Ranger District last December began collecting public input on possible improvements to the area. The Kite Lake Improvement Plan calls for “adjustments based on changing use and needs.”

Resource damage in the Buckskin Gulch corridor leading to Kite Lake “is getting to the point of unacceptable,” said Alix Jensen, a natural resource specialist with the forest.

“I’ve heard the comment that it’s about time,” Jensen said. “We are at a critical point where we can start doing something and all of us involved are on the same page and working in the same direction. I’m excited to see how this partnership evolves.”

The trail groups are working with The Conservation Fund to possibly develop a funding system that could acquire old mining claims in the Alma Mining District that could then be added to the Pike National Forest. (The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative in 2016 acquired mining claims on 14er Mount Shavano in the Collegiate Range near Salida, rebuilt the peak’s trails and donated the land to the Forest Service.)

All summer, the group’s volunteers are in mountain ranges across the state, rebuilding trails hammered in a century ago by miners’ mules. Earlier this summer, crews with the Colorado Fourteener Initiative used a helicopter to drop 62 300-pound timbers at 13,000 feet on the twin Grays and Torreys 14ers. Those 12-foot logs will help support an eroding trail on one of the most trafficked 14er routes in the state.

The Colorado Mountain Club is surveying hikers again at Kite Lake this summer, just as the club did in 2020 and 2021. Last year the group surveyed 727 visitors and found 86% knew the summit of Bross was closed. The previous summer only 66% of hikers surveyed were aware the summit was privately owned and not open to the public.

Last summer 71% of hikers at the trailhead were unaware that the summits of Lincoln and Democrat were also privately owned.

The club’s surveyors also asked where hikers researched the 14er routes and most said 14ers.com and AllTrails.com. So trail advocates work closely with administrators of those websites to make sure there is up-to-date information regarding closures and routes available online.

The club also built the Recreation Impact Monitoring System, an app that gives hikers the ability to report issues on trails and at campsites. The data is shared with land managers who can identify trouble areas and deploy crews.

“We need people to do more than just no harm,” said Chastain, who counted 73 cars lining the road to the Kite Lake Trailhead on a recent Tuesday morning. “We need people to do good and actively participate in the protection of these places. We need people to educate themselves about their impacts and then start giving back.”

— “Great strides” but more to do

“I do think we have made great strides,” said Cara Doyle, the executive director of the Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative, a conservation group that serves as an on-the-ground go-between for the different groups working in the range and also offers year-round education programs in the area’s schools and communities. “One big way we can get people conserving our mountains and following rules on trails is to start with families and young children so they are educated from early on what that matters and what their role could be. If you are not raised with this conservation mindset that recognizes your impacts, it takes longer to understand.”

Alma Mayor Sam Golgoon said increasing use, safety issues and resource damage in Alma’s watershed pushed the town to take over the concessions contract several years ago. The town’s agreement with Colorado Mountain Club has helped protect the actual trails and better monitor use and hiker numbers on the peaks.

The club’s work and insights are helping to inform discussions about possibly requiring reservations to access the trailhead or maybe even a shuttle between town and the Kite Lake Trailhead. Reservations are a popular tool for managing crowded locations like Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon and Mount Evans. Shuttles like the publicly operated buses that connect Breckenridge with the Quandary Peak trailhead or the city-operated shuttles between Aspen and the Maroon Bells trailhead, have eased parking woes at overwhelmed lots in the woods.

“The only way we can do these things is through these partnerships,”Golgoon said. “We try to be proactive about managing the impacts in our watershed. This is a very big deal for a little community of less than 300 residents.”

— “A legislative fix”

Hail about the size of peas, but getting bigger, started to fall as Chastain and her colleague Jedd McClure reached the social trail leading to the summit of Mount Bross. Although Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative have spread the word far and wide to not climb Bross, many hikers do anyway.

That’s not surprising. It’s frustrating for peak-bagging hikers to stop and turn around 100-meters below the summit of Bross. Reiber said Bross was heavily mined decades ago and there are all kinds of mine shafts that could collapse on the peak’s highest points.

“Sooner or later things tend to cave in and no one can predict exactly when that’s going to happen,” Reiber said. “The expansive amount of mining on Bross makes a lot more exposure for the owners.”

Chastain pulled a “No Trespassing” sign from her pack. There’s a stub of a post at the intersection of a faint, illegal trail and the Decalibron Loop trail, which winds about 8 miles across the summits of Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln as well as 14er Cameron Peak, which is managed by the Forest Service. A previous sign was gone. So was the post that held it.

“Maybe it was a rockslide. Or wind or snow. I guess we will do the best we can with what we have,” Chastain said as McClure pulled a drill out of his pack to mount the new sign. “This is just a Band-Aid solution to let people keep hiking these peaks while we work out a long-term solution for future generations.”

Athearn, whose team has walked every trail on every 14er in Colorado, creating a daunting to-do list of repairs and rebuilds, is working not just with landowners but lawmakers, hoping to get support for adjustments to the Colorado recreational use statute. An attempt in 2019, which cut the exemption for landowners who demonstrated “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition,” did not gain any traction.

“We need modifications that will bring us back to the place where the law truly protects well-intentioned landowners,” said Athearn, who hopes to enlist support for a legislative adjustment from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which works closely with private landowners to allow hunting and fishing access. “Colorado is growing and we will need to look at other opportunities for recreation and many of those will be on private land and if we can’t get landowners to feel secure about access, we will have fewer opportunities for new trails or even protecting existing trails that cross private land. We need a change to the state’s recreation access law to do that.”

Reiber is hopeful the new signs are working but he’s not optimistic. He wonders if the signs and Band-Aid fixes are potentially slowing legislative action.

“That thought has crossed my mind over and over and over again. If I truly advocate for legislative change why am I allowing this to happen?” he said. “If I just leave it closed, is there a better chance legislators will produce a bill? Look, we want to reduce or eliminate our liability and still allow people to enjoy these 14ers. After this year we will find out how everything has worked. I’m not really positive the signs are going to get the results we want. I think it will require a legislative fix.”

Reiber said he’s planning a trip to the peaks soon.

“If I see significant abuse when I go up there I might just stop this mid-stream and shut it all down,” he said. “We can’t keep assuming the liability risk for other people’s bad behavior.”

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved.