Supreme Court to Consider Fate of Rail-Trails

For the second time in history, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a case about rail-trails. At stake is the public ownership claim of hundreds of thousands of miles of right-of-way around railroads, some of which has been converted into multi-use trails.

The Medicine Bow rail-trail lies 30 miles west of land claimed by both a private landowner and the Forest Service. Photo: ##

The Supreme Court will hear the complaint of Wyoming property owner Marvin Brandt, who owns 83 acres along an abandoned Pacific Railroad Company line. According to E&E News, some of the land along the line became part of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, and some was privately developed. In 2005, the Forest Service claimed a “reversionary interest” in the land under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act, with the intent of building a rail-trail.

To offset the costs of building railroad lines across the country in the 19th century, the U.S. government granted the railroads the right-of-way for the corridors along which they would lay the tracks, but it maintained public ownership rights in case the railroads ever abandoned them — which they have, all over the country. The U.S. had 254,000 miles of railroad in 1916, down to less than 140,000 today.

“Not only did this ensure that the corridors would remain available for public use, but it also ensured these vital transportation routes would remain in place should rail service become viable or necessary once again” after the railroads abandoned the routes, RTC explains. These corridors have sometimes been converted into highways and, as RTC advocates, rail-trails, giving people an important recreation and transportation link. Not all rail-trails are in the remote plains of the west, either — some have become key commuter routes in cities and towns.

While the Wyoming tussle over property rights played out, the 21-mile Medicine Bow rail trail was completed — 30 miles west of Brandt’s land. But trail enthusiasts dream of building a connector trail that would link Medicine Bow to other nearby trails, which could go through the disputed area.

Brandt lost his case in a lower court, which sided with the Forest Service, ordering Brandt to turn over the land. But Brandt claims there’s legal precedent on his side. The Supreme Court will decide.

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which is filing an amicus brief in the matter, “The case affects more than a century of federal laws and policies protecting the public’s interest in railroad corridors created through public lands – and could have lasting impacts on the future of rail-trails across the country.”

“A win before the Supreme Court would reaffirm the grand vision of our forefathers that explicitly held that these linear public spaces should remain of and for the people,” RTC said. A loss would “threaten rail-trails across America that utilize federally granted rights of way.”

Brandt’s legal representative, William Perry Pendley, says he also hopes the case will set a precedent — protecting property owners against “a massive, nationwide land grab” by the federal government.

The high court is expected to hear arguments in the case in January.

  • yodasws

    Greensboro, NC, has converted an abandoned rail line into a bike path running between shops and housing parallel to two very busy roads, connecting people to work and recreation. There’s an abandoned rail line running for several miles from Wilmington, NC, up to Goldsboro, NC, that NCDOT and CSX are negotiating to rebuild and reuse for freight and passenger rail. These old rail lines were and *are* part of the public’s interest and should not be given away.

  • Anonymous

    The article says “the 21-mile Medicine Bow rail trail was completed — 30 miles west of Brandt’s land”. For clarity, it’s my understanding that Brandt’s property is in Fox Park, which the trail goes right through. When I rode this rail trail last year, the trail was complete, as stated in the article, but this section was fenced off, necessitating an unfortunate detour.

    I suspect that if an ornery landowner fenced off one of the rail corridors that had been converted to highway, the authorities would be a little quicker about re-opening it.

  • Nathanael

    This case probably won’t have much effect as a precedent. This is a case where the land was abandoned *before* the railbanking law, and it’s preserved due to 19th century law. It won’t have any effect on the states east of the Mississippi where the legal situation which gives rise to this never happened.

  • Morris-Friedman

    I think that the anti-rail trail cases are funded by American Legislative Exchange Council (alec) a conservative think tank

  • noname

    Why give rail trails to unappreciative spoiled brat groups like bicyclists or pedestrians? They already have the world as it is. Beggars can’t be choosers, is how it goes. Not gimme gimme gimme.

  • Hilltowntrader

    The Obama administration asked Scotus to take this case, to clear in a single swipe, over 8,000 pesky landowners all of whom objected to the goverment taking private land without legal basis. And those are just the ones who filed law cases. Those pesky landowners…

    The easement never was “public access” It was only an easement for use by private rail companies only. An easement is just of surface use and runs over the underlying land owned by someone else. The 1875 Railroad Right of Way Act, under which most western Rail easements were issued is pretty clear that if and when the private rail company abandons the use, the easement expires.

    As noble as rail trails might be, the govenment can not just come in a lay claim to private land. That you want to bike on someone elses private property doesn’t mean that you can. Unless other arrangements are made, any landowner can fense off any rail trail illegally installed. It’s their land – don’t be a tresspasser.

  • Hilltowntrader

    Actually it may affect east of the mississippi rail trails depending on the Law underwhich the easement was created in the first place. Check trail by trail;


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