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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Carlson August 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

This is a big deal! I cross private lands here in Northern CA on a regular basis. No access to these lands would completely change the scope of outdoor woodland recreation around here.

I assume that this would also close the unimproved “backroads” that lead from say, Whiskeytown, up through the mountains (and some beautiful vistas I might add!) that cross Sierra Pacific lands.

I’ve always been a bit annoyed that such wilderness can be privately held. The spectre of closure to the public always loomed in the back of my mind and now it is a stark reality. As much as I think government involvement messes things up more than it helps, when it comes to what wilderness we have left, I’m starting to think that it should all be made public.

That such a treasure as millions of acres of wilderness could be closed from the public, who it should belong to, is hard for me to understand and reflects a flaw somewhere in our system.


John Soares August 6, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Well said Mike. I’m also very concerned that private landowners will clamp down on public access. There are already quite a few that already prevent people from traveling their lands.

It may take a federal law to fix this, or an opposite ruling from another federal court.


Laura Sheffield August 8, 2012 at 12:38 am

I have quoted your article and placed several links to your page. I appreciate landowners who allow public access across their property to get to our destinations, and have trail favorites from Auburn to Trinity Alps. I think we crossed private property on the Tahoe Rim Trail too. Mike, be careful. This is landowners being bullied by government, not government saving lands for us. Let people control their property, and they are usually genrous. One example is Harvego River Land Reserve where working ranch owners collaborated and allow public tours of the area by trained docents.


TC/The Trout Underground August 9, 2012 at 9:16 am

Sounds awful, but fortunately it has the feel of an issue that will receive prompt attention from the legislature (perhaps even bipartisan support).

The big forestry companies enjoy pretty active lobbying efforts, and I suspect they’ll find bipartisan support for some kind of relief, even in an otherwise dysfunctional congress.

Not to diminish the threat, but I bet it doesn’t loom too long. Otherwise, the damage to the outdoor recreation sector will probably run in the billions.


John Soares August 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I hope you’re right Tom. It does seem like an issue that shouldn’t much rankle partisan feathers on either side of the aisle.

But in the meantime, we’ll have to see how private landowners respond.


Rick Ramos August 15, 2012 at 8:29 am

Sounds like the insurance companies are looking for the deep pockets again. What a travesty if this is allowed to stand.


Jim Broshears August 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I didn’t read all of the comments here in Butte County we have seen a steady decline in road access into and through SPI land. Those ubiquitous green gates have gone from blocking obscure looging roads to main access roads and more seem to appear every year.
In many ways I can’t blame them. Their are those who abuse the privilige and if we add liability to that, it would be hard not to close your property.
A agree that we who love the outdoors should band together to help the private property owners get relief from onerous liabilities arising from the actions of others


Laura Sheffield September 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm

The potential consequences of this decision (disallowing access to historical trails that cross publically owned land) for the sake of another dollar is much more serious than the general public may be aware of. I recently visited Sierra Discovery Interpretive Trail which is part of PG and E land, and I’m posting on Peachy Hiker the Pioneer Trail from South Yuba River to Spaulding Trail, also crossing PG and E land. Both are reminders to me of the risk of having our hiking access revoked. Thanks for keeping avid California hikers aware of such developments.


John Soares September 4, 2012 at 6:59 am

Laura, there are many trails that cross private land, so this definitely is a very important issue.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and bringing this issue to the attention of your readers.


victor Quiroz February 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Dear John Soares,

I’m an avid lifelong hiker. I actually worked as a hiking guide for a health fitness spa in my 20’s and that was one of the best jobs of my life. I live in Santa Cruz but regularily travel across California in search of new hiking spots. I have recently become dismayed at the condition of our State Parks and especially since I added dogs to my family and hikes. Our Local State Parks are very restrictive of dogs which is understandable but sometimes it goes to the extreme in my opinion. I have also encountered the growing hoards of people going to the parks which on one hand I’m glad to see the parks used and supported but on the other hand it makes it difficult at times to find solitude and solace in open space.

I was at the Pinnicales last weekend and was repeated reminded my the rangers (in a friendly way) that dogs are restricted to the roads only. Again, I understand, but it would be nice to hike a trail with my dogs without a constant concern in the back of my mind about restrictions. So a friend suggested hiking on private land. He said that he knew of someone who paid a license fee for access to hike private land. Do you know of a list of spots or owners with private land to hike? I would like to begin venturing out into new territory and it would be great to find some quiet spots to hike, read and play with my dogs. Any suggestions? Thank you in advance.


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