Today's Arguments in Supreme Court a Pivotal Moment for Rail-Trails

Posted 01/14/14 by Mary O'Connor in Policy

Photo © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

I just returned from the United States Supreme Court where I witnessed oral arguments in a case that could forever change the course of the American rail-trail movement.

Alongside me was a small army of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy staff and supporters. We are under no illusions about how much is at stake in this case, in which a private landowner, supported by a number of well-known property rights groups, is suing the United States to bring a public rail corridor into his private ownership.

Sitting in the packed courtroom today it was obvious that the justices understand the great significance of how their decision on this one section of rail corridor inside the Medicine Bow National Forest may impact public and private land across the country. They were eager to know how many miles of federally-granted rights-of-way were out there, so as to gauge the impact of a ruling on whether the United States retains an interest in such railroad corridors after train service has stopped.

It was great to see in the court today the Assistant to the Solicitor General, Anthony Yang, move to dispel the myth that affirming the United States ownership of these rights-of-way would result in us "waking up tomorrow to find bicycles riding through people's living rooms," as one of the justices asked. Rather, as our own legal counsel Andrea Ferster has surmised, a win for the United States will not result in a great rush of rail-trail development, but a loss would mean a rush of landowner litigation against the United States.

We think it's a clear case of a land use that benefits the many versus one that enriches the few. That's what the rail-trail movement has always been about - providing access for all along corridors of land that were always intended for the public good.

You can read a transcript of today's arguments here. Our legal and executive staff are currently digesting the statements and arguments from today. Stay tuned in the coming days for expert insight on how the case is playing out, and what it could mean for America's rail-trails. Sign up for our eNews, and make sure you get the news as soon as we do.

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