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Supreme Court ruling on rail trails is limited, expert says

Published March 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. (BRAIN) — A March 10 U.S. Supreme Court ruling could make it harder to build biking or hiking trails on abandoned railroad corridors. But a Rails To Trail Conservancy spokesman said the effect on recreational path development will be limited.

The ruling in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al. v. United States could allow private landowners to challenge the federal government's control of land that had been granted to railroad companies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Brandt is a Wyoming landowner who challenged the government's control of a rail corridor on his land, once used by the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad. Inside the Medicine Bow National Forest, that former railroad was converted into a public trail now known as the Medicine Bow Rail Trail.

But, according to the ruling, the Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 gave government control of land specifically for railroads. Once some of those rails were abandoned, the land reverts to its owner, the court ruled. The 8-1 decision, reached after two lower courts found in favor of the government, was hailed as a victory for private landowners. And media reported that the decision was a huge blow to trails built or planned for former railroad corridors on private property.

Kevin Mills, senior vice president of policy and programs for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, stressed it's important to understand the scope and context of the ruling. He said it doesn't apply to trails that have been "railbanked," a federal process that preserves an unused rail corridor for future railroad use by converting it to a multi-use trail in the interim. It also doesn't affect rail corridors acquired by the federally granted right of way before 1875 and corridors acquired by a railroad from a private landowner. Also unaffected are current trails if the trail manager owns the land adjacent to the rail corridor; if the trail manager owns full title to the corridor; or the railroad corridor falls within the original 13 colonies.

"This only affects federally granted rights of ways acquired under the 1875 Act," Mills said. "And the government can still decide that the trail is an important asset and use eminent domain to keep the property. We're dealing with a narrowly prescribed set of circumstances. If you have an existing rail trail on federally granted right of way land acquired under the 1875 Act not railbanked and for which the government would not pay just compensation, then the adjacent landowner could take back a piece of the land."

There's no data on how many miles of rails trails this ruling could impact, a fact that was brought up during oral arguments in court. Many trails west of the Mississippi aren't on federally granted right of way land, and the vast majority in the East are not on federally granted right of way land, Mills said.

Of the 83 acres owned by the Brandt family, about 10 acres were at stake in the case.

"It's undoubtedly a disappointing decision, but not nearly as far reaching as many fear," Mills said.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said that the ruling "undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Rails To Trails Conservancy has dedicated several web pages to information detailing the potential impact to current and future rail trails.

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