Original article by
Laura Snider in Winter 09 Vertical Times; summarized and updated by Joe
Weber likes to cruise around his 400-acre verdant Kentucky spread, walking the seven-plus
miles of sandstone cliffs in Muir Valley to see what the climbers are up to—or
maybe to catch a belay himself.
and his wife Liz are retired now, and Muir Valley is their nest egg. To lose it
in a legal battle over liability, sued over a climbing accident, for example,
would be devastating. When the pair bought the property in 2003, they knew they
wanted to open it up to fellow climbers, but they needed to make sure they were
protected as well. After doing some homework, chatting with the Access Fund,
and reading up on state law, Rick was convinced that they could open up their
private land under the protection of Kentucky’s
recreational use statute.
we’re concerned,” Rick said. “But we’re told that we have a reasonably safe
legal position.… We could batten down the hatches and not stick our neck out,
but then you don’t get the benefit of sticking your neck out.”
Webers––being climbers themselves and having bought Muir Valley specifically
for its tempting ribbon of sandstone cliffs––are rare in the arena of private
landowners who wrestle with whether, and how, to allow climbing on their
properties. But the type of land-use statutes that enable the Webers to host 40,000
climber visits a year (and still sleep at night) are not rare. All 50 states
have recreational use statues, which are meant to encourage recreation on
private lands by shielding the property owners from liability. But these laws
vary both in their level of protection and the types of recreation they cover,
and the ways that landowners, or their lawyers, interpret these statutes is
even more varied.
diversified approach to managing risks is important. Insurance, management
agreements, and leases are just a few additional tools where the Access Fund
can lend a hand to landowners and local climbing organizations. But recreational use statutes are the main building
block of liability protection.
the 1950s, states began to pass laws designed to encourage private landowners
to open their properties to hunters, anglers, and other recreationalists by
limiting the landowner’s liability. Now, all 50 states have these laws, called
recreational use statutes. Not all of the statutes are the same, and they don’t
all offer the same level of protection, but they do have general commonalities:
states list a few types of recreationalists as examples, but the list is
usually not inclusive. Some states specifically name rock climbing, but in most
states, rock climbing would fit under the general definition of recreation.
- Fees: In most states,
landowners are only protected if they do not charge a fee, although in some
cases, fees to cover maintenance or property taxes are allowed.
- Duty to
keep safe: None
of the states specifically requires landowners to keep their properties safe
for anyone who might use the land to recreate, but in some cases, a “duty to
keep safe” isn’t mentioned at all, leaving it more open to interpretation.
- Duty to
none of the states specifically requires landowners to warn people about
hazardous conditions, natural features, or activities on their properties.
of safety: In
most states, the law says that opening your lands to others does not mean that
you’re vouching for the safety of the land or the activity.
sure that you check out your own state’s statutes. This is a good starting point.
Seek qualified legal counsel in your local jurisdiction.
ebb and flow of liability protection
Prior to 2005, Illinois’ recreational use statute
defined recreation as “any activity undertaken for conservation, resource
management, exercise, education, relaxation, or pleasure on land owned by
another.” The state legislature changed the law to define recreation as the
“entry onto the land of another to conduct hunting or recreational shooting.”
In this change to the law, hunting and recreational shootings are not examples;
they summed up the entire legal definition of recreation in the state of
Illinois for the purpose of the statute.
Eric and Kathy Ulner, who own the Draper’s Bluff
climbing area in southern Illinois, discovered this change in 2009 and issued
an open letter to the climbing community, expressing that they would need to
close their property to climbing access due in part to loss of liability
The Access Fund collaborated with the Illinois
Climbers Association to advocate for returning the statute to its original
level of protection. After seven years of work by a broad coalition of partners,
the bill recently passed both the state House and Senate. Landowners in
Illinois can breathe a little easier now that this bill sits before the
Governor for signing.
2012, local climbers and Access Fund lobbied to add climbing to New Hampshire’s
recreational use statute. With the help of a supportive state senator, the bill
passed and New Hampshire joined the list of states that specifically name rock
climbing in their statute, along with Alabama, Colorado, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and
Wisconsin. “This is an important piece
of legislation for climbers,” says Erik Eisele, Access Fund NH regional coordinator.
“It makes it much more likely that a landowner would consider public access to
tools to boost liability protection
Recreational use statutes and related state laws are only one kind of
risk management that landowners can employ. There are other strategies,
including waivers, signage, and agreements that can help to mitigate risk. The Access
Fund recently gained new capabilities to partner with landowners and local
climbing organizations by entering into written agreements that outline
stewardship roles and liability protection. Through Access Fund’s liability
insurance policy, jointly held agreements can provide additional insured status
to both the landowner and local climbing organization involved. Such an agreement may take the form of a
recreational lease, access easement, or management agreement that outlines how all
the parties will work together to support and manage public use.
with local partners, this additional layer of liability protection played a key
role in securing access at two crags in 2012—Auburn
Quarry in Northern California and Bubba
City in the New River Gorge of West Virginia.
The Access Fund works with partners on both a local
and national level to advocate for these forms of liability protections across
the nation, and to strengthen them where possible. Learn more about the
wide array of risk management tools at www.accessfund.org/landownersupport and contact us to
explore how a partnership can help open climbing access in your local area.