by Taimur Ahmad and Paul Sanford, The Wilderness Society
As the owner of a woodland, you are likely familiar with the recreational value of forests, from hiking, to hunting and fishing, to just admiring Fall colors. State and national public lands offer people a chance to get outside and experience the benefits and beauty of nature – and by opening your woodland to recreation, you can as well.
If you are hesitating to allow people to recreate on your land because you are concerned about potential liability for injuries, you should know that all fifty states have a Recreational Use Statute (or RUS). An RUS enables you – the landowner – to allow the public on to your own parcel of forest with less risk of liability. In essence, Recreational Use Statutes expand the opportunities your neighbors have for getting out into nature while also providing you with some protection from the legal risks of opening up your properties to visitors.
The basics of an RUS are simple. If you allow people on to your land for recreational purposes and they get hurt while recreating, the RUS will generally protect you from liability for their injuries. For example, if you let someone hike through your woodlot and they trip over a tree root and injure themselves, you will generally not be liable for those injuries. Furthermore, because of the RUS, you typically have no obligation to modify natural conditions on your property to make them safe. Members of the public who use your land are treated – in terms of liability on your part – as if they were “trespassers” who are ineligible to sue you, except that you are implicitly allowing them to use your forest.
There are, however, important exceptions to the protections an RUS offers you. Two common ones are for gross negligence or willful conduct. If you recklessly allow an extreme hazard to exist without putting up any form of warning (gross negligence), or intentionally create such a hazard (willful conduct), you will not be protected by the RUS. An example of gross negligence might be failing to put up signage warning visitors to take precautions such as wearing orange during a hunting season when you know that hunters are active in the area.
Another limitation is that RUS’s vary, sometimes considerably, from state to state – so check your local RUS! One such variation relates to payment for the use of your land. Some RUS’s limit protection to situations where the landowner charges no fee for visitors using the landowner's property. Other states allow the landowner to charge fees, usually up to a certain cap, for maintenance purposes. Further variations exist, such as definitions of who qualifies as the “owner” of a property, and whether an RUS automatically applies to your land or whether you need to get a specific designation. Before relying on the protections of an RUS, make sure to look up the RUS for your state and resolve any questions you might have by contacting an attorney.
Disclaimer: This article should not be regarded as legal advice. Contact an attorney for legal advice on the application of recreational use statutes in your area.
References and Further Resources:
The below link allows you to easily find your state’s RUS – but double check to make sure it has not changed since 2010.
Rumley, Elizabeth R., and Rusty W. Rumley. 2010. “States’ Recreational Use Statutes.” (Retrieved from http://nationalaglawcenter.org/state-compilations/recreational-use/).
The following reference gives a more detailed overview of RUS’s and may answer some questions.
Robertson, Jason. 2000. “What Are Recreational Use Statutes?” (Retrieved from http://www.americanwhitewater.org/archive/article/124).
This reference gives an in-depth technical analysis of RUS’s in Northern forest states including New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Brown, Tommy L. 2006. Analysis of Limited Liability Recreation Use Statutes in Northern Forest States. Cornell University: Human Dimensions Research Unit. (Retrieved from http://atfiles.org/files/pdf/NEstaterecliability.pdf).