David Burwell and Peter Harnik, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founders | Photo by Robert Trippet

History of RTC and the Rail-Trail Movement

Thirty years ago, a group of walking and biking enthusiasts, railroad history buffs, conservation and parks groups, and active-transportation activists began meeting regularly in Washington, D.C., to mobilize efforts to preserve unused rail corridors for public use. The group quickly realized the need for a dedicated organization, and on Feb. 1, 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opened its doors.

Since our founding, RTC has worked from coast to coast, supporting the development of thousands of miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails for millions of people to explore and enjoy. Our work combines national policy advocacy and research expertise with on-the-ground trail development. We advocate for trail-friendly policies and funding at the federal and state levels—in the courts, in Congress and throughout the country. Through our trail development work, we have helped hundreds of communities in America plan, build and maintain trails in urban, suburban and rural areas.

David Burwell, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founder | Photo by Carol Parker
David Burwell, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founder | Photo by Carol Parker


Resources Radio podcast with Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Resources Radio · From Rails to Trails, with Peter Harnik

Host Margaret Walls talks with Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, about grassroots and legislative efforts to repurpose abandoned railroad lines as recreational trails. Harnik discusses why the United States has so many abandoned railroad lines, the process of converting a railroad line into a trail, and the legislation that provides funding for trail projects.

We’ve helped craft rural trails that spool out over a hundred miles of open prairie, snake through mountain passes and span canyons and riverbanks, offering views unknown to the highway traveler. We’ve supported the development of connections between towns and suburbs, linking communities along vibrant corridors. And we’ve helped create thriving urban networks that are transforming neighborhoods and entire regions.

Related: American Icons: Rail-Trails That Helped Shape the National Landscape

RTC recognizes that trails are more than just wonderful recreational amenities; they are multi-use corridors that create powerful opportunities for active transportation and physical activity—improving our health and well-being and safely connect people of all ages and abilities to jobs, schools, businesses, parks and cultural institutions.

"In 1965...Rails-to-Trails was still a highly localized movement; people said, 'We've got an abandoned railroad track, so let's use it.' Only gradually did there emerge a realization that America desperately needs a national trails system, and that unused rail corridors are the perfect backbone for that network."
       —Peter Harnik, RTC Co-founder

Related Downloads

“Peter Harnik, RTC First Responder”  – Rails to Trails, Spring 2006
“A Trip Down Memory Trail – 20 Years of RTC”  – Rails to Trails, Spring 2006

Learn More

For articles and commentary about rail-trails, trail-development work and active-transportation projects around the country, visit the TrailBlog.

For full feature stories, check out our quarterly Rails to Trails magazine and explore remarkable rail-trails and trail-networks.

Listen: WHYsconsin: History of railroads, beginning of Rails-To-Trails | Wisconsin Public Radio