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New recreational liability legislation will allow non-profit groups to allow the public to participate in outdoors recreation or educational programs on privately owned land. Photos by Chris Young.

Liability reform could improve access for recreation

June 06, 2013 at 10:09 PM

The State Journal-Register


Landowners and nonprofit groups can soon breathe a little easier each time they allow public access to their property for outdoors recreation or education.

The Illinois House and Senate recently passed SB1042, a bill that protects property owners from liability if they allow the public on their land to hike, fish, watch birds or participate in other forms of outdoors recreation.

The bill now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature. If he signs it, the new law would take effect Jan. 1.

For decades, landowners were exempt from liability, but a court case changed that seven years ago.

A lawsuit over a sledding accident caused the law to be amended when the question arose over whether the liability exemption covered an invitation to friends or only if the land was open to the public.

Since then, only hunting and recreational shooting remained exempt.

But other forms of recreation were not protected, and landowners who once welcomed visitors had to say no.

In southern Illinois, landowners of a popular climbing spot, Draper’s Bluff, for example, had to close their property to rock climbers after they became aware of the change.

Organizations such as Openlands in Chicago, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois and others worked for years for the change in the law.

“There were definitely some discouraging moments, but I always thought it was good public policy,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director for Openlands.

“We’re really happy,” said Susan Donovan, director of government relations with The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. “It is the mission (of the partners working on the bill) to encourage people to open up their land so people can see the cool things they are doing.”

The law applies to organizations or landowners that want to allow public recreation.

For example, if a local group owns a parcel of land and wants to establish hours when the public can visit outside of scheduled events or tours, they can do wo without needing to purchase additional liability insurance, so long as they don’t charge admission.

“What I’d like to do upon signing – and it is our recommendation that the bill be signed - that we work with the advocates from the bill to try to cast a wide net,” said Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “There are networks of land trusts for whom this applies and we want them to be aware and how they might be able to open up more access.”

Nonprofit conservation groups have an interest in allowing public access so they can show the benefits of stewardship work, whether the results are improved hunting and fishing opportunities, or a restored landscape free of invasive plant species.


Recreation and educational activities can demonstrate the benefits of restoration.

Marilyn Andress, with the volunteer group River Bend Wildland Stewards in the Quad Cities, said her group often had to purchase liability policies for each public event.

“We do buy policies to cover liability on lands that we work on,” she said. “If our stewards do the work, we are covered thorough our general liability policy up to a certain amount.”

But inviting the public, including students from nearby universities, requires additional coverage.

Andress said liability policies for events cost her organization $300 - $500.

Miller said conservation groups that have land open for hunting will be able to offer additional opportunities under the new law.

“The conservation groups that want to promote hunting opportuntieies can now open up to other activities like hiking, bird watching or canoeing without purchasing additional liability insurance,” he said.

Beyer-Clow said nonprofit groups provide the working example, demonstrating how the new law works.

Andress said her organization is getting ready to make the jump into land ownership.

“It will be better for us because we won’t have liability hanging over our head constantly,” Andress said. “We’re just getting our land trust up and running and (this legislation) is coming at the right time.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO.

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