The U.S. Supreme Court sided Monday with a Wyoming landowner in a suit over a bike trail, which could force the government to pay landowners across the country, and the ruling will likely have minimal impact locally, according to those responsible for regional trails.
Jennifer Barefoot, the assistant secretary-treasurer for Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania and a long-time Rails to Trails advocate, is confident the trails will be all right because the land containing the Lower Trail and Bell's Gap Trail was purchased outright and not through government easements.
"From my understanding, ours are pretty much safe here," Barefoot said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Erick and Amy Flaig of Williamsburg walk along the Lower Trail near Williamsburg on Monday afternoon.
In the Wyoming case, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that property owner Marvin Brandt owns the Medicine Bow Row Trail, a former rail corridor that the U.S. Forest Service converted into a public trail.
The Supreme Court's decision reversed that of the lower appellate courts, which ruled in favor of the U.S. government.
Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted against the decision, and she filed a dissenting opinion.
"When the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad abandoned the right of way in 2004, the easement referred to in the Brandt patent terminated." Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "Brandt's land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right of way as he enjoyed over the rest of the Fox Park parcel."
Nationally, the Rails to Trails Conservancy has backed the government, and the organization filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court.
According to a release from Rails to Trails, the concern is not necessarily for current trails, but for the future, as this may deter or complicate projects to transform rail corridors into public trails.
"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," according to the release.
Rails to Trails has not released an official statement in response to Monday's ruling, but called the news "disappointing" in a short update linking to the opinion.
Hazel Bilka, executive director of the Bellwood-Antis Community Trust, which runs the Bell's Gap Trail, echoed the sentiment, saying the additional costs that the court's precedent sets could be very debilitating for people looking to develop in the future.
"I think that would be a monumental problem for all trails, because they're built for the good of the people and for the public to use," Bilka said. "They're usually extremely short-funded and I think something like that could really deter future developments."
Barefoot said that the Supreme Court's ruling could make it harder for Rails to Trails as it works to extend its current trails to Roaring Spring and Hollidaysburg.
"We're dealing with 17 different landowners," she said. "That becomes, not nightmarish, but it's a lot more work."
Barefoot said the Lower Trail had its share of court battles, but the circumstances were different from the Brandt case. The case ended in Rails to Trails' favor, Barefoot said.
Both Barefoot and Bilka said it's important for these trails to be maintained for future generations, as they offer a variety of recreation options for local residents.
Barefoot said that keeping the rail corridors intact also serves another function. Should the government choose to revert to railway transportation, the trains could come back to the same places they used to be, she said.
"If that gets cut up and then we need to use it again, it's a nightmare trying to put that back together," she said.
Bilka called the trails a "real asset to communities."
"They're a wonderful place for families to go out, get in nature and get some exercise," she said. "I think you can really appreciate the great outdoors on most of the trails, no matter where they are."
Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.