Federal Court Ruling Could Restrict Access to Private Lands for Hikers

by John Soares on August 6, 2012

Many hikers and outdoors recreation enthusiasts use private land with the owners’ permission. However, a federal court ruling regarding the 2007 Moonlight Fire on Sierra Pacific land may have a major impact on that.

Here’s a press release I just received from the California Forestry Association. You can also read a transcript of a KCHO discussion about the case, and read this article in the Redding Record-Searchlight. Note that I’m not specifically endorsing the California Forestry Association.

Closure of Public Access on Private Lands Considered

Federal Court Decisions forces Private Forestland owners to consider ending all public access to their land

(Sacramento) – For decades private forest landowners have provided a variety of opportunities for public access on their lands, from full public access to no public access. Those forest owners who do provide access often allow Californians to hike, hunt, fish, bicycle and enjoy other outdoor activities in their scenic forests. Unfortunately, access to millions of beautiful forested acres may become a thing-of-the-past due to recent federal court rulings on wildfire liability.

Last month the federal courts made a ruling that landowners can potentially be held liable for any fire that starts on their land. In the case of the Moonlight Fire, the ruling will cost the landowners and contractors working on the land nearly $100 million in estimated total value of recoverable damages due to a wildfire that migrated from private to public land. The origin of the fire is still in dispute, but the judge’s ruling made it clear that the landowner may be liable regardless of how the fire started.

The ruling is having a chilling effect on private landowners’ willingness to allow any public access to millions of acres of privately owned forestland in California.

Private forests are often spread out and intermixed with public forests throughout the state, and include backpacker trails, wildlife refuges, pristine creeks and more. Often people may not know if they have wandered onto private land from public land.

“Many forest landowners have allowed local communities and others access to their lands. But they are now facing extraordinary legal risk by allowing the public to recreate on their property,” says California Forestry Association (CFA) President David Bischel. “Our members are finding it difficult to obtain insurance and face serious potential financial consequences of an open access policy. Each company will be reviewing their individual policies to find the best solution for themselves.”

Most states have laws that substantially limit public and private landowner liability. Recreational use statutes protect private landowners who want to open their land to the public for recreation free of charge. California Civil Code Section 846 provides the state’s policy on allowing recreational use to one’s lands. Specifically, the law states that a landowner has “no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose…” Under the new Moonlight Fire ruling the law may no longer protect private landowners from liability issues.

“The state policy to encourage and support landowners who allow the public to recreate on their property is undermined by the recent federal court’s rulings.” says Bischel. “It is ultimately the people of California who will be the ones paying for bad federal government practices. “

“Like most landowners, you take pride in your land,” says Paul Violett, Chief Forester of Soper-Wheeler Company. “Our landowners wish that they can still have the option to provide their land for recreational use, but the federal government has put our backs against the wall. Private landowners need to make the best decisions to protect our livelihoods and the forestlands. Unfortunately, that may mean closing our land to the public for good.”

Your Take

What are your thoughts on this subject? I know I hike across private land frequently, and that many private landowners, including large timber companies and PG&E, actively allow people to use their lands for recreation.

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