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  • Steph Noll

Recreational Immunity Spring Update

Recreational immunity is a law that encourages landowners to open lands to the public for recreational use free of charge by protecting the landowner if a recreational user seeks damages after an injury. Recreational immunity is important to both public land owners and parks providers as well as land trusts and private landowners who open their lands to the public through trail easements or other allowances. 

Access to nature and outdoor recreation provides so many benefits to individuals and communities. However, recreating in constantly changing outdoor environments also carries possible risk of injury. Without recreational immunity, landowners fear the real risk of expensive lawsuits and cannot afford to keep their trails and lands open to the public.

All fifty states in the U.S. have enacted statutes that confer some degree of liability protection to landowners who allow the general public to use their land for recreational purposes free of charge.

Oregon's statute was called into question by a case called Fields v. Newport that raised questions about how recreational immunity protections for landowners were affected by the primary intended purpose of the person using a trail. If the trail user didn't consider their purpose to be recreational, did recreational immunity still apply? You can learn more background here.

During the 2024 legislative session, hundreds of trail users, land managers, tourism partners, and other constituents contacted their legislators, submitted testimony, and even went to Salem to emphasize the importance of restoring protections for landowners to keep Oregon's trails open to the public.

The result? Oregon's legislators passed SB 1576, which was then signed into law by Governor Kotek on March 27th, 2024. SB 1576 is an emergency fix bill that temporarily restores Oregon's recreational immunity protections for public and private landowners with amendments to the existing statute that clarify that walking, running, and bicycling are covered recreational purposes and that recreational immunity applies both when the right of way has not been improved and when the right of way (or trail) has been improved, designed or maintained to provide access for recreation. You can read the full bill here. Because the bill was passed in a short session without ample time for legislators to deliberate, they opted to place a sunset on the amendments of January 2, 2026.

SB 1576 is crucial for providing landowners the protection they needed to reopen trails through 2025. However, the work for a more permanent solution remains. Senator Prozanski is currently convening a legislative workgroup to discuss possible legislation for the 2025 legislative session that more permanently addresses the vulnerabilities introduced by Fields vs Newport. Oregon Trails Coalition is participating. We are hopeful that that the workgroup will yield a bill for the 2025 session that clearly provides landowners the protection they need to keep Oregon's trails open to the public for the long term and to continue to develop the new trails that Oregonians demand for their communities. We'll be calling on our community again next session to share your stories with legislators about the trails you love, the trails that provide safe alternatives to walking, running, and bicycling on high-traffic roadways, and the trails that increase access to the outdoors for all.

(Images from Staj Olson, Charlene McGee, and Jared Kennedy: Two young children on bikes are followed on a paved trail through dune grass by an adult walking a dog, a group of adults stand smiling on a wooded trail, a man with a toddler in a backpack walk through a high dessert landscape.)

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