A Win for Washington Climbers

After legal advocacy from climbers, recreation groups, and land managers, Washington State Supreme Court recently reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that undermined Washington’s recreational use immunity law, which encourages landowners to open land to climbing.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Matheson

Recreational use statutes are state laws that greatly limit both private and public landowner liability when their land is opened for recreation. These laws are based on the premise that recreational users assume the risks associated with their activity, discouraging lawsuits against a landowner from individuals who are hurt while recreating.

Washington State’s recreational use statute was recently challenged (in Lockner v. Pierce County) when a cyclist was injured on public land. A Court of Appeal’s decision held that Washington's statute was limited to land opened to the public solely for recreational purposes. This decision meant that any lands also opened up to timber sales, wildlife protection, scientific study, or anything else in a wide range of multiple uses would be open to lawsuits stemming from accidents to recreational users on those lands.

Access Fund was troubled by this decision, considering that vast amounts of climbing in Washington occur on lands where recreation is not the primary use. For example the Gold Bar Boulders and Equinox are on state working timberlands; Tieton Canyon and Vantage are on state wildlife refuges; and Little Si and Morning Star alpine climbs are within Natural Resources Conservation Areas.

Access Fund joined forces with a coalition of recreation groups and land trusts—including Washington Climbers Coalition, American Whitewater, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, The Mountaineers, and Washington Trails Association—to enter an amicus brief with the court that urged a reversal of this decision.

We’re happy to report that on April 19, 2018, the court reversed the original ruling. Washington state recreational use statute does in fact cover any lands opened for free public use, regardless of whether the land in question is used solely for recreational use or if the land has been opened to other uses. A huge thanks to Pacifica Law Group for representing us and preparing our amicus brief.

Protecting Washington’s recreational use statute is important for climbers across the nation. When these laws are weakened it creates up a blueprint for other states to weaken their laws. Each year, Access Fund spends hundreds of hours working with local climbing organizations and partners across the country to strengthen recreational use statutes, get climbing language added, and fight legislation or case law that could weaken these important laws that safeguard climbing access. Learn more about our Risk Management & Landowner Support work.

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