Barb Scottston is an active woodland owner and dedicated horse owner and rider. She and her husband live on a large forested property in SE Minnesota. In addition to being a woodland owner, Barb’s background is in business and teaching.
I recently asked Barb if she had any experience related to access and liability and quickly learned the answer is “Yes!” and she went on to type: “Ironic timing... I have trail rider guests here right now.”
So here are some words of wisdom from one generous and careful woman woodland owner:
The woods can be a very dangerous place, even without a gun or a horse. Some things to consider:
· Find superb specialty legal counsel from an attorney with experience in landowner liability, including situation-specific release forms (liability waivers/hold harmless). The medical insurance companies can be a bigger challenge than your injured friends.
· We are not a business charging for access. If a landowner collects fees, that may require a whole different set of policies and legal agreements. Refer back to above bullet. Same attorney should be able to provide advice based on current case decisions regarding landowner liability. Court decisions change things.
· Most non-profit organizations usually don’t have “deep pockets,” so may seem more lenient in enforcing their land-use policies. Landowners deemed to be “judgment-proof” might be less attractive for a lawsuit than a private landowner.
· Have liability insurance beyond what comes with a homeowner's policy, such as umbrella liability and commercial/professional liability. Some recreational or trade associations (such as the United State Equestrian Federation) offer membership perks that include liability insurance for specific activities.
· Always know who is where and when all the time. It’s a basic safety issue. If we gave you permission to mushroom hunt in an area once, it does not grant carte blanche to return again. New permission needed each and every time. We do allow hunters, but must be very selective in number and in qualifying their capacity to follow instructions and be safe.
· Use trail cameras. We caught one trespasser this way because the camera could read a vehicle license plate. He got a certified letter from us after the sheriff identified the owner for us.
· Zero tolerance for trespassers. Lots of signs and notice. Hunters can be dangerous, and are not always smart. (Same with a lot of horse people.) Be careful, state law may not be effective at prosecuting trespassers.
In the end, it boils down to responsibility. A landowner is the "hallway monitor" responsible for knowing what is going on, and I don't ever want to explain to a judge why I looked the other way, or bent the rules, for someone who ended up in a tragedy on my watch. A Local called us "mean" once for not allowing the old-school free-for-all access. I replied with a "thank you!" and explained that we're only "mean" to the folks who don't follow the rules. My spouse had a (perhaps) better reply. When it was suggested to him that we are selfish for not allowing more access to the land we are privileged to own, he said, "Help mend the fences and pay the real estate taxes. Then we can talk."