David Burwell, president and founder of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, rides in 1999 along a trail that was converted from a CSX rail line. (Photo: Michael Madrid, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The Supreme Court's ruling against the government in an
obscure Wyoming land dispute Monday could result in the loss of
thousands of miles of bicycle trails.
The justices ruled 8-1 that
government easements used for railroad beds over public and private land
in the West expired once the railroads went out of business, and the
land must revert to its owners.
Chief Justice John Roberts,
writing for the majority, said the case was decided based on an 1875 act
of Congress and a 1942 Supreme Court decision involving the Great
Northern Railway Co.
That ruling confirmed that the government
merely had received easements without any long-term land rights, he
said. The establishment in 1983 of the federal "rails to trails" program
didn't change the court's interpretation.
"We're going to stick with that today," Roberts said from the bench.
decision could jeopardize the "rails to trails" program, responsible
for creating more than 1,400 bike and nature trails, many of them built
along railroad rights-of-way.
That prompted a lone dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of
way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and
recreation," Sotomayor said. "Lawsuits challenging the conversion of
former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American
taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
The ruling came in a
case brought by Wyoming landowner Marvin Brandt, whose 83-acre property
is crossed by an old railroad line. Brandt's victory has implications
for about 80 other cases involving some 8,000 claimants.
of claims pertaining to 1875 Act rights-of-way have been filed," the
Justice Department said in its brief to the court. "The United States
will be obligated to pay just compensation on many claims in which
ownership of the right-of-way is often a determining factor."
oral arguments in the case in January, justices had a hard time getting
information on the overall acreage or miles of trails involved. It
"strikes me as pretty unusual that the government doesn't know what it
owns," Roberts said at the time. Justice Antonin Scalia, who cast his
lot with the landowners early on, called that "incredible."
Stephen Breyer, who has had three bicycling accidents since 1993 - the
last of which in April resulted in a shoulder replacement - envisioned a
future in which landowners could be besieged by bikers.
certainly think bicycle paths are a good idea," he said. But "for all I
know, there is some right-of-way that goes through people's houses, you
know, and all of a sudden they are going to be living in their house and
suddenly a bicycle will run through it."
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