The National Rails-to-Trails program could be in jeopardy following a Supreme Court ruling in a Wyoming land dispute. The decision in the case could affect more than 1,400 bike and nature trails that are built on old railroad rights-of-way.
Wyoming landowner Marvin Brandt owns property crossed by an old railroad line. The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to complete the Medicine Bow Rail Trail. The Court’s ruling blocks the trail from crossing about a half-mile of Brandt’s property. There is currently a 21-mile trail that detours around Brandt’s property. The land is about 40 miles west of Laramie.
The ruling threatens thousands of miles of existing trails across country that use federally granted rights-of-way and could potentially require the government to pay millions of dollars to owners of land crossed by the trails if the trails are to remain open. Other trails under construction become more vulnerable to litigation from adjoining landowners. Trails built on railbanked corridors, which are preserved for future rail use and are converted to trails in the meantime, are safe.
The railroad crossing Brandt’s land was abandoned in 2004. The U.S. Government sought title to the corridor so it could build a trail, as it has done this on former railroads through the country since the 1983.
The government claims that the railroad rights-of-way revert to them once the railroad stops operating. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said the terms of the agreement that allowed Brandt to take ownership of his land from the government in 1976 made no mention of the railroad right-of-way ever switching to the government.
The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 created the rights-of-way. The question now is whether this act entitles the government to retain its interest in railroad rights-of-way after railroad operations along the corridor stop. The Justices ruled 8-1 that once the railroad goes out of business, the government easements for the rail bed expire and the land must revert to its owners.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says they believe the intent of the 1875 legislation was that these linear public spaces should remain available to the people as public assets for all to share and benefit from. The rights-of-way, federally granted, has played a crucial role in the rails-to-trails movement as thousands of miles of biking, hiking, skiing, snowmobiling and equestrian pathways have been built across the country since the program was established. The ruling confirmed that the government easements did not confer any long-term land rights.
Kevin Mills, senior vice president of policy and trail development for the conservancy, says other trails could be shut down if landowners go to court. It is possible that the government could use eminent domain proceedings to retain access to the land and keep trails in operation. This would still require payment to landowners for use of the property.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a non-profit organization with the mission of creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines. Established in 1986, they have more than 20,000 miles of rail-trails throughout the country, and 9,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built.
There are about 80 other rails-to-trails cases involving about 8,000 claimants pending and the Conservancy anticipates an increase in litigation based on the ruling. In Brandt’s case, the Supreme Court reversed the original ruling by a lower appellate court.
By Beth A. Balen