This booklet provides landowners and land users with infermation at,out public recreation on private property in Vermont. It covers rights of landoweners, responsibilities of land users, and issues of common concern. We hope this information will help maintain the long Vermont tradition of public recreation on private land.
This booklet contains general inforrmation only. The Vermont statutes referenced in this booklet are found in Appendix I. People wishing specific advice should contact -- depending on the situation and need -- organizations listed in the Directory (Appendix II)I the Vermont Attorney General's office, their own attorney, and/or their own insurance agent.
Private landowners in Vermont play a very important role in providing outdoor recreation to the public. Since about 85% of all land in the state is privately owned, most of the hunting, fishing, trail use, and other valued recreation activities in Vermont would not be possible without the cooperation of private landowners. The Vermont Legislature recognized this and in 1998 amended the Landowner Liability law to increase landowner protection for allowing recreational users on private land.
Recreationists -- many of whom are also private landowners themselves -- appreciate access to private land and want to see it continue. However, the possibilities of overuse, abuse to the land, and liability still worry landowners and may cause them to consider curtailing public access.
Costs and problems are very few, since most users are respectful and thankful for the opportunity to use your land for their activities. However, there may be an occasional incident or problem person. To deal with these isolated cases, cooperative partnerships with recreational organizations can help. Also, education is on-going by both public agencies and private organizations.
Public recreation on private land in all likelihood has little or no impact on its resale or taxable value. In some cases, however, values could increase or decrease somewhat depending on the recreational activity and how it affects the property. Landowners should contact their town listers to determine this.
Vermont law allows people to hunt, fish, and walk on private property without permission unless the land is legally posted. Nonetheless, recreation organizations and agencies strongly urge individuals to obtain permission before undertaking their activities, as a courtesy and way of showing respect. Requirements for legal posting are in 10 V.S.A. Section 5201 and available from town clerks.
* NOTES: Permission should be in writing. Even if permission is granted to any individual or group for the above purposes, it may be withdrawn at any time. Such use of someone's property is always a privilege, not a right.
If a recreation organization wishes to create or maintain trails or structures on private land, a written agreement helps ensure the work is done to landowner satisfaction and on schedule. The organization also educates its members on appropriate use of the property and corrects any misuse, if it happens. Many organizations also have insurance policies covering their activities.
Both the landowner and recreation organization should have a clear understanding of rights and responsibilities, preferably in writing. Many organizations have "landowner agreements" already prepared for this purpose.
Ordinarily, an organization seeking to develop or maintain a facility (trail, bridge, shelter, etc.) on private property does so without offering compensation to the landowner. Gestures of appreciation, such as a dinner or award, do not constitute compensation and will not reduce landowner protection under law.
However, if any cash or any other significant compensation is given, the landowner will have a greater "duty of care" (more responsibility) to users, and therefore less protection from lawsuits.
To emphasize again: public use of private property for recreation is a privilege, not a right. The landowner ultimately controls what occurs on his or her property.
The landowner may choose to permit only certain uses while prohibiting others. This is done through legal posting; for details and procedures see 10 V.S.A. Section 5301 or contact your town clerk.
If feasible and if the landowner is comfortable in doing so, the landowner could contact the offender(s) directly to correct the situation. Otherwise, the landowner should contact the representative of the organization using the land and/or responsible under the agreement. If a violation of the law is known or suspected, the landowner may contact law enforcement authorities.
If an owner wishes to subdivide or develop property on which a trail exists, the trail may be a consideration in local zoning or an Act 250 permit. Check with town plans, zoning ordinances, and/or Act 250 officials to understand the significance of the trail and how the governing body deals with trail issues.
Under Vermont law (12 V.S.A. Section 1037, "Acceptance of Inherent Risk" in Appendix I), recreationists accept the risk in the sport they perform. This means they cannot successfully sue a landowner for injuries sustained as a result of the risk inherent to the activity, when snowmobiling, crosscountry skiing, mountain biking, or even walking.
NOTE: Landowner liability increases if a fee is charged for use of the property for recreation, since a "higher level of care" (responsibility) is owed to recreationists.
Posting does not affect liability. The landowner is protected whether or not the land is posted.
Easements do not affect liability. Both the landowner and the party holding the easement are similarly protected, as if there were no easement.
Most standard homeowner's insurance policies cover legal expenses and damages awarded as a result of a lawsuit. Most policies apply to all land and structures. Check with your agent.
The landowner can also seek "contractual indemnification" (also called "hold harmless agreements") or become an "additional insured" with the organization or agency using the land. In contractual indemnification, an organization agrees to step into the landowner's liability shoes and pay the cost of defending a lawsuit and any judgements against the owner. As an additional insured, the landowner is added to the organization's or agency's insurance policy, and thus is covered.
The Stewardship Incentive Program is a federally-funded source that provides money to landowners for various forestry practices, including trail construction, limited improvements for wildlife, and so forth. However, funds are very limited at this time. Contact the appropriate County Forester of the Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation.
Some non-profit organizations and public agencies may purchase or accept donations of certain interests in private land (including recreation and public access), depending on their mission and goals. Examples of such organizations are the Vermont Land Trust, local land trusts, The Nature Conservancy, and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Trust Fund. See Directory (Appendix II).
Recreation organizations sometimes have their own sources of funds for these purposes. See Directory (Appendix II).
Vermont Statutes Annotated (V.S.A.) have se\leral sections pertaining to protecting landowners from liability for particular situations or activities. Below are very brief descriptions of the relevant laws. In each, the exact wording of its application is quoted.
This protects landowners from liability for all recreation use on their land where a fee is not charged. The statute's stated purpose is "to encourage owners to make their land and water available to the public for no consideration for recreational uses by clearly establishing a rule that an owner shall have no greater duty of care to a person who, without consideration, enters or goes upon the owner's land for a recreational use that the owner would have to a trespasser." Specifically:
"Owner" means a person who owns, leases, licenses or othewise controls ownership or use of land, and any employee or agent of that person.
"Land" means: open and undeveloped land, including paths and trails; water, including springs, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and other water courses; fences; or structures and fixtures used to enter or go upon land, including bridges and walkways.
"Recreational use" means an individual's noncommercial activities on another person's land for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, gathering wildflowers or berries, birdwatching, horseback riding, picnicking, swimming, skiing, snowshoeing, and similar activities. It also means any nocommercial activity undertaken withut consideration to create, protect, preserve, rehabilitate or maintain the land for recreational uses.
Recreationists must accept the risks that are natural aspects of the activities in which they engage.
This additionally and specifically protects landowners if the land is part of the Vermont Trail System. The VTS is a voluntary program in which trails have been recognized for their value to Vermont. Acceptance is according to a formal selection process through the Agency of Natural Resources (contact Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation -- see Directory, Appendix II).
This additionally and specifically protects landowners if a state or municipal bicycle route is on the property.
This additionally and specifically protects landowners whether or not permission has been given to the operator of a snowmobile to use the land.
This additionally and specifically protects landowners whether or not permission has been given to the operator of an ATV to use the land. (The wording is the same as in the snowmobile section, but substitutes iiall terrain vehicle' for "snowmobile".
This additionally and specifically protects landowners who allow horseback riding and other equine activities (e.g., shows, jumping events, steeplechases, etc.) on their land.
This document has tried to highlight selected sections of Vermont's law concerning landowner liahility. For a complete copy of the law, please contact the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation at:
For general information about recreation statewide, including planning, policies, resources, some legal issues, and references:
Vermont Trails & Greenways Council
C/o Dept. Forests, Parks & Recreation
103 S. Main St. Bldg. 10 South
Waterbury, VT 05671
For specific information and questions on the activities and/or issues listed:
Vermont Trail Riders Association
PO Box 136,
So. Pomfret, VT 05067
Local Planning Facilities-Project Development Div.
VT Agency of Transportation
133 State St. Montpelier, VT 05602
Professional Outdoor Guide Association
PO Box 3
No. Ferrisburgh, VT 05473
Green Mountain Club
RR 1, Box 650
Waterbury Center, VT 05677
Green Mountain Horse Association
PO Box 8
So. Woodstock, VT 05071
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department
103 S. Main Street, 10 South, 2nd. Fl.
Waterbury, VT 05671
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board
149 State St.
Montpelier, VT 05602-3501
Vermont Land Trust
8 Bailey Avenue
Montpelier, VT 05602
The Nature Conservancy
27 State St.
Montpelier, VT 05602
Mountain Bikers of Vermont
RR 1 Box 1450
Waterbury, VT 05676
Vermont Property Owners Report
PO Box 1110
Montpelier, VT 05601
Catamount Trail Association
PO Box 1235
Burlington, VT 05402
Vermont Ski Areas Association
26 State St. Box 368
Montpelier, VT 05601
802-223-2439 www. skivermont. com
Vermont Association of Snow Travelers
PO Box 839
Montpelier, VT 05602
For Information on recreation on state lands:
Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks & Recreation
103 South Main St. 10 South Bldg.
Waterbury, VT 05671
This booklet is sponsored by the Vermont Trails & Greenways Council, a non-profit organization of recreational land users and land providers, which works to enhance trail and greenway opportunities in Vermont. A grant from the Vermont Recreational Trails Fund provided money for publication. Special thanks to law student Julia Sperry for legal research, and to Mary Azarian for the illustrations that appear in the printed booklet.
This document is available upon request in large print, braille and audio cassette by contacting Vermont Forests, Parks and Recreation. Vermont TDD 1-800-253-0191
The Agency of Natural Resources is an equal opportunity Agency and offers all persons the benefit of participation in each of its programs and competing in all areas of employment regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual preference, or other non-merit factors.
Printed on recycled paper August, 1997, Revised June, 1998