RTC President Keith Laughlin at Flat Branch
Park in Columbia, Mo.
When I worked in the White House, I attended a lot of meetings with high-powered people in suits. But none of those meetings compared to one I had this past fall. On October 1, 2011, I hosted a luncheon with many of the honorees of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Awards. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, we had chosen 25 people who have played a major role in founding and growing the rail-trail movement.
Arrayed around the table was a group of ordinary folks in ordinary clothes. But they were telling extraordinary tales. Many of the stories harkened back to the early days when the idea of rail-trails was new. These trail pioneers often faced fevered opposition in places where people feared the idea of public space in proximity to their private property. We heard of one trail group that was in a race with arsonists as they struggled to rebuild bridges on the trail faster than their opponents could burn them down. In another case, trail opponents convinced a law enforcement official to arrest a graduate student for trespassing on public land because he was developing a plan to convert an unused corridor into a trail. And one trail champion recalled cutting and clearing miles of barbed wire that had been strung up to prevent public access to land in the public domain.
Then someone indicated that threats had been made on his life. Someone asked if anyone else had that experience. A half-dozen hands quickly shot up. A chill ran through me as I fully realized that the early trailblazers had to have more than vision and persistence; they had to have courage.
But the tenor of the conversation shifted as we continued to talk. Rather than tales of fear and intimidation, the trail champions told stories of how former opponents had become regular users of the trail with their children and grandchildren. With the passage of time, the ferocity of resistance subsided and the enormous value of the trails loomed so much larger.
Later that night at the award reception, I was honored to present each of the rail-trail champions a mounted, silver-plated railroad spike. When honorees expressed their gratitude to me for the award, I could only think how grateful we all must be to this extraordinary group of citizens—and thousands of others like them—who have worked with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to build more than 20,000 miles of rail-trail during the past 25 years. We are in their debt.