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Changes in liability law could promote access for recreation

May 24, 2013 at 11:04 PM

The State Journal-Register

After seven years of trying, a bill to protect landowners from liability if they allow public recreational access to their property has a chance to pass.

Prior to 2005, private landowners who allowed access for hunting, fishing, hiking, birding or other recreation were protected from liability claims if something went wrong.

Then a court case involving a sledding accident raised the question: Did the liability waiver apply when the landowner extended a private invitation to someone to use the property, or only if the land was considered to be open to the public?

The law was amended to exempt only hunting and recreational shooting from liability.

All other forms of outdoors recreation were not exempted, and the expense of insurance has forced many conservation organizations and private landowners to restrict access.

“It just kills us,” said Vern LaGesse, executive director of Friends of the Sangamon Valley in Springfield. “We can’t afford the liability insurance to open our sites to the public without the legislation change.”

The Friends is a stewardship organization and land trust that works with government agencies and private landowners, and also owns a handful of preserves, including the 70-acre Wolf Preserve in Menard County and Boyle Woods in Cass County.

“None of our properties are open to the public because of the liability,” LaGesse said. “They are only open by invitation or member events.”

Susan Donovan, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, said a popular southern Illinois destination for rock climbers, Draper’s Bluff, was closed to public access because the property owners could not risk being liable for an accident.

She said conservation groups that are trying to show the public the benefits of habitat restoration are hamstrung when preserves are off-limits.

The Nature Conservancy made the decision to develop visitor access for its Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County.

“We raised private dollars to build those facilities to encourage and engage the public in the conservation work we are doing,” Donovan said.

Despite all sides coming to an agreement, time is running out on the spring legislative session.

“Time is of the essence,” said Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

He said with only a few days left before the scheduled adjournment May 31, the number of bills to be heard will be limited.

“Getting it out of the House is imperative,” he said. “We have four days to get a concurrence vote.”

The bill, SB1042 House Amendment 1, has passed the Senate and is due to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Donovan said.

Conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy, Openlands and the Illinois Environmental Council, and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association have worked with Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, to craft the bill’s language.

The 2009 Conservation Congress, a meeting of constituent groups, identified recreational access as one of the top three issues facing DNR.

The others were funding and providing opportunities for youth.

“This has been a long discussion, but it is moving and it will alleviate some of the concerns that have kept landowners form opening up their lands,” Miller said. “This is a step in the right direction to restore those protections that were there for decades.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at

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