Getting on top of private peaks
ALMA – The tops of Mounts Bross, Lincoln, Cameron and Democrat provide brilliant vistas for 100 miles and more, but the view of how to get there is still cloudy. Many climbers assume they are on public land as they strive to add more of Colorado’s 53 14,000-foot mountains to their list of accomplishments, unaware they are trespassing on private mining claims. The hikers and the owners of those fourteeners are trying to solve the problem of providing access to those peaks, but they stumble over how to keep hikers using the trail without putting the landowners open to lawsuits. Land on the tops of those Mosquito Range mountains has been privately owned since 1873, well before the establishment of the surrounding Pike National Forest. Mine owner Maury Reiber says he understands the lure to climb to the top of his mountains, but he’s wary of trespassers who break into his mines and historical buildings, or put themselves in jeopardy of falling through the hundreds of mining tunnels into the shafts below. “There’s no way of telling just where some of those shafts are after all these years,” Reiber said.
Hundreds of miners dug shafts in the silver heyday of the 1870s and because most were prospect holes that yielded no riches, they were left to be haphazardly filled in by more than 100 years of snow and earth settlement, Reiber said.The problem of visitors climbing the Park County fourteeners has been around since tourist groups used to visit the mines wearing button-top shoes, long dresses, top hats, and celluloid collars. More recently newspaper articles have said the Forest Service was no longer issuing permits to climb the mountain, though the agency has never issued such permits. The Forest Service has only been warning climbers that they would be going on private property and should contact the owners for permission. That resulted in a flood of calls to Park County from avid hikers determined to locate the phone number of the owners to get permission. And one Park County organization, the Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative, has been trying to find a solve the problem. The Heritage Initiative acts as a consortium of widely diverse groups who have a stake in the welfare and use of the Mosquito Range. Representatives of the Colorado Department of Wildlife, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Colorado Mountain Club, ATV clubs, the Forest Service, Park County government officials and historic groups all have been involved in the organization’s activities. One proposal is for mine owners to lease marked trails across their land. A similar program was arranged by a Park County agency in which ranchers lease restricted access to private streams for trout fishing.
Cara Doyle, president of the Alma Foundation and one of the founders of the Heritage Initiative, wants to gather volunteers to build and post signs along some of the trails to tell hikers they are crossing private property and to warn against leaving the trail.Help from Denver? The problem may also be attacked from the Denver.T.J. Rapoport, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, said state Rep. Rob Witwer, a Front Range Republican and hiker, is preparing a bill to protect landowners who want to allow hikers to cross their land but not get sued. While there are some provisions for public recreational use, long-standing legal protections against litigation seem to be falling by the wayside.
In a 2002 case, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that even release forms signed by parents would not hold up if the children were injured skiing and negligence could be proven. A law would be needed to better define negligence in the case of the public hiking on private lands.”Private landowners who allow the public access across their property are doing a public service,” Witwer said. “It should be encouraged, not punished.”Witwer’s proposed bill is still being written, but it’s drawing support, he said. “The idea is to strike a balance between access to the backcountry and appropriate legal protection for the public,” he said. “I think such a balance is possible – in fact, I’m very hopeful that a consensus can be achieved.”Vail, Colorado
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