14er Access: Boundaries and Intersections of Public and Private Lands

By CMC Conservation Director Julie Mach

Have you hiked the Decalibron?  Did you know you that you were surrounded by private property?  Did you know what is public land and what is not? Did you know that if you enter private property you maybe trespassing?

This collection of 14ers in the Mosquito Range is a popular loop to bag the peaks of Mt. Democrat, Lincoln, Cameron and Bross but most climbers don’t know they are traveling on private property.  While landowners have been gracious enough to allow access to Democrat, Lincoln and Cameron (Cameron is owned by the US Forest Service), the summit of Bross is illegal to access.

Map showing the authorized Decalibron loop which skirts the summit of Bross. Private mining claims are shown outlined in grey.

CMC sat down with landowners John Reiber and Patrick Schilken to learn more about the challenges they face – particularly around liability and environmental impacts – when allowing recreationists access to their land.  We’ve summarized the facts below and you can also watch our panel discussion online: https://youtu.be/BbGzOao367A

  • These Peaks are Private:  The Alma mining district includes hundreds of patented mining claims that create a patchwork of private ownership throughout the Mosquito Range.  Three of the four summits, as well as areas around Kite Lake and much of the existing trails are on private property.  Private property owners are not required to permit public access to these peaks, just as you are not required to allow public camping in your backyard unless you want to.
  • Lincoln, Democrat & Cameron are Open:  The landowner of these peaks has graciously allowed public access for the last few years through a lease agreement with the town of Alma.  He worked with the Forest Service and Colorado Fourteeners Initiative to define a looped route that includes these three peaks.
  • Bross is Closed:  Fractional ownership of the mining claim on the summit of Bross means there are several parties with ownership rights, and they have NOT authorized public access to this peak.  Summiting Bross is trespassing – there are signs and an established trail below the peak to avoid these private parcels.  CMC does not condone illegal access to this peak.

You might be asking why the landowners care about hikers accessing these remote peaks – there is no active mining currently and what harm will a few peak baggers do?

  • Landowner Liability – Normally the Colorado Recreation Statute helps protect landowners who allow free recreation access to their private lands but because of the mining infrastructure on these properties, the burden of liability may fall to the landowner if you fall into a mine shaft.  The regulatory authority is unclear and the challenge of finding, signing and closing the adits (mine entrances) and other potential hazards would be impossible.
  • No Trespassing Signage – Normally one method to avoid liability is to post your private property boundary but imagine trying to maintain fencing or signage (every 400 yards) at 12,000+ feet, through scree fields and across vertical slopes in harsh alpine conditions year-round.  Again, likely impossible or cost prohibitive to adequately post every boundary.
  • Use is Skyrocketing:  The Forest Service is estimating a significant increase in use of these peaks based on vehicle traffic at the Kite Lake trailhead in 2020 and they expect over 30,000 visitors throughout the course of the season.  These numbers may be extra-inflated because of the pandemic (and we expect there is not sufficient social distancing with thousands of people on the trail each weekend) but it’s also indicative of the trending increase in public land use throughout Colorado.
  • More Users = More Impact:  The associated impacts from so many users (trash, human waste, environmental degradation) is growing quickly and neither private landowners nor the forest service have the resources to manage these impacts.  Because the peak routes are not official Forest Service trails, there are limitation on using agency dollars so the trails are generally unmanaged and unmaintained.

What are the solutions?

  • Stay the Trail:  Enjoy your summits of Lincoln, Democrat and Cameron but respect private property and do not summit Bross at this time.  Spread the word to your friends, coworkers and fellow hikers on the trail – most folks don’t know they are traveling on private property.
  • Leave No Trace:  Minimize your impact to these areas by parking and camping in designated areas, packing out ALL waste, and sticking to the designated trail (don’t cut the switchbacks!).
  • User Education:  CMC is working on a peak stewarding program to provide more education to hikers and encourage responsible use.  The CMC website contains additional information on access to this and other mountain areas.  Look for our Stewardship Coordinator Connor Maher on the Peaks August 22 – he’ll be there to educate users and survey the number of visitors.
  • Use of Technology:  Know where you are by using technology.  There are many available trail and map apps for use on your phone or GPS device.  A list of available apps is located on the CMC website.
  • Hard copy maps.  There are a number of governmental agencies that hard copy maps.
  • Regulatory Changes:  CMC is also investigating legislative changes that would provide better protection to landowners and perhaps encourage the owners of Bross to allow for recreation access.  CU Denver Master’s student Alex Derr is researching legislative opportunities and will provide recommendations this winter.

JOIN AND SUPPORT CMC:  CMC is all about facilitating access to the Colorado mountains, but we are also committed to being respectful partners to landowners/managers as well as good stewards of the lands we are traveling through.  Please help us achieve this goal by taking responsibility for your actions when out recreating and helping to educate your fellow users!

To further support our efforts on this project, please make a donation to CMC Conservation at https://secure.qgiv.com/for/cmc

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