You can find them in every state of the union, from Maine to Hawaii, from Alaska to Florida: old railroad rights of way that have been or are being converted to trails for biking, hiking, and other recreational uses. As many as 1,400 such trails covering perhaps 15,000 miles have been built since a movement to repurpose such land began in the 1960s, and about another 1,100 are in the planning stages.
But a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday could endanger those trails, many of which have become integral to the economies and communities where they are located.
The court ruled decisively, 8 to 1, in favor of a southern Wyoming landowner named Marvin Brandt, whose father once ran a sawmill making railroad ties on the family’s 83-acre piece of land, now contained within the Medicine Bow National Forest. Brandt had contested the United States Forest Service’s right to use a half-mile-long, 200-foot-wide rail right of way going through his land as part of a 21-mile-long trail that runs along the former rail tracks.
His case against the United States, which claimed that the government had lost the right to use the old rail line for anything other than a railroad as part of a land deal his family made in the 1970s, was defeated in two lower courts. But he emerged victorious from the nation’s highest court, which ruled on the basis of an act of Congress dating back to 1875 and a 1942 Supreme Court case that concerned the Great Northern Railway.
The abandonment of the railroad, the majority wrote, terminated the easement that governed it when the trains were running, “leaving Brandt’s land unburdened.”