For many coloradans, climbing the highest peaks in the state is a rite of passage. From the unparalleled beauty of the Rocky Mountains to a deep sense of adventure after a long day at altitude, enjoying Colorado’s rugged wilderness is part of who we are.
But what many outdoor recreationists — and even longtime residents — may not know is that a surprising amount of Colorado’s perceived wild land is actually owned by private citizens.
The idea that a private citizen could own a mountain – especially a mountain of clear public interest like a 14er – really shocked me. After years of backcountry adventures, I first learned of the controversial issue last summer when I was banned from trekking four of Colorado’s 14ers: Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron , Mount Bross and Mount Lincoln.
The closed trail was the Decalibron Loop, a seven mile trail located just outside of Alma. It mostly roams above 13,000ft over rocky terrain, which easily attracts high altitude hikers like me. Yet despite its remote feel, this loop turns out to have large sections owned by private citizens – and so those citizens can decide, at any time, for any reason, to close it.
Last summer they did.
The trail has since reopened thanks to many efforts by local outdoor conservation groups to ease landowner concerns. But the risk of future closures on this trail and others remains high without more concrete action from the state legislature.
All things considered, the legislative solution is relatively simple. To allay concerns of private landowners who fear lawsuits, the Legislature could simply more clearly define Colorado’s recreational use standards to recognize the natural hazards of mountaintops and offer landowners a legal reprieve from injury. not malicious.
But even with this potential fix — something lawmakers absolutely should do, though it’s unclear if anyone is ready to take over just yet — the question remains what public access looks like. fair and equitable for private peaks. In other words, is working to ensure public access enough or should more be done?
This issue is perhaps best illustrated when considering the example of Culebra Peak, a private 14er in the southern region of the state. In Culebra, the private landowners of this summit not only severely limit public access, but charge a hefty price of $150 per person for those who are allowed to climb.
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That means anyone who wants to achieve the feat of climbing the 58 14ers in Colorado—a common goal, no doubt, for hikers and mountain climbers—must pay a private citizen a hefty wad of cash to make it happen. It’s a stark example of how public access on its own may not be enough if that public access comes with a snag.
And that is the problem: as long as these lands remain in private ownership under current law, at any time, for any reason, other private owners of beloved mountains or forests could choose to do the same – nothing prevents them from doing so. That puts not just one, but several Colorado 14ers and many other lower elevation peaks at risk of closure or high fees.
Proponents of private property will suggest that there are legal nuances in land grants and historic mining permits that need to be considered here, and that is undoubtedly true. Revoking private land ownership would be exceptionally complicated at this point, even if it seems the fairest thing for the greatest number of people.
But the fact remains that the loss of equitable public access to some of our most scenic mountains should be of deep concern to every Colorado. It is manifestly unjust that a single citizen should wield such power that he willy-nilly restricts access to the highest and most striking heights of the state or withdraws considerable funds from them.
The road to change can be long, but it is not impossible. At the very least, state officials can start by updating current recreational use laws, increasing funding for trail use and maintenance, and increasing support for partnerships that facilitate trail use. purchase of private land for public purposes.
Most importantly, I challenge officials to consider a series of measures that would prevent bad faith landowners from unreasonably profiting from our peaks. We may not be able to prevent private property, but fair and equitable access to the outdoors must remain a primary focus for who we are as Coloradans – anything less is truly wild.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer, and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She is an avid climber and was a 2020 U.S. Senate candidate from Colorado.
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