Outdoor groups pushing for liability change

A state legislator and environmental advocates are pushing to undo a 2005 law that removed liability protection for property owners who allow public access to their land for recreational use.

The 2005 measure led to the closure of a popular rock-climbing site downstate, and has Chicago-area outdoors enthusiasts up in arms.

Lenore Beyer-Chow, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Openlands says the organization works to protect natural spaces in Illinois.

"We are about connecting people to nature and allowing people to do recreation out on land that's not open to everyone,” Beyer-Chow says.

The 2005 amendment to Illinois' Recreational Use of Land and Water Areas Act removed liability protections for all activities except shooting and hunting.

The amendment came in the wake of a McHenry County court case involving a couple who allowed sledders to use their property.

One such guest slipped down icy stairs, was knocked unconscious, fractured her right arm and tore a knee ligament.

The homeowners claimed they were protected under the Recreational Use of Land and Water Areas Act, but lost.

That precedent worried farmers and others who commonly invite others onto their property to hunt and shoot, says Beyer-Chow. The law was changed to afford protection for those activities, but protection for others was removed.

An expansion of protection is opposed by the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. Jim Collins, the executive director, says liability protection means there's no incentive for private landowners to keep their property safe.

"Openland's group wants to have immunity when people get hurt, which is something this association is against," says Collins.

Until now, some private landowners were unaware of the amendment. They are now closing their properties to the public.

Eric and Kathy Ulner own Draper’s Bluff, a popular southern Illinois rock climbing site. They released a letter to the public in mid-May stating they were unaware of the amendment and were left with no choice but to close the Bluff to the public.

“We have but one house to live in and are not willing to risk it to pay off the grieving family of a climbing fatality or lifelong rehab expenses of a spinal injury,” reads the statement.

Drapers Bluff was a hot spot for the Chicago Mountaineering Club. Programs Chair Keith Bielat says other sites just don't compare.

“I fear that this is the first of many closings,” says Bielat.