David Burwell’s mother, Barbara, likes to tell this story about her middle child:
One day when he was about 8, he came home from a Woods Hole Red Sox Little League game.
“How did you do?” she asked.
“We almost won,” said David.
“What was the score?”
“I think it was 18–3,” he said.
That’s her boy, says Barbara Burwell. “David is an optimist. He always thinks he’s winning.”
—Excerpt from “David Burwell” by Harry Jaffe, originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of Rails to Trails magazine
This past week, the world lost a passionate conservationist and environmentalist. On the anniversary of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC's) founding, rail-trail visionary and co-founder David Burwell passed away on Feb. 1, 2017, after a hard-fought battle with leukemia.
His passion, tenacity and strong sense of public service were critical in taking RTC from vision to reality in the 1980s. His legacy exists in the more than 2,000 rail-trails he helped to inspire into completion—and in the federal legislation that protects and supports trail networks across the country.
“Through vision, hard work and perseverance, David created an organization—and a movement—that transformed the American landscape. His legacy will live on as millions of Americans every year enjoy thousands of miles of rail-trails, thanks to a great idea David had more than 30 years ago,” said Keith Laughlin, RTC president.
In the early 1980s, struggling railroads were abandoning 4,000 to 8,000 miles of rail line each year, and a national treasure was being lost. Burwell, who was working for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington, D.C. at the time, came together with walking, hiking and cycling enthusiasts; railroad history buffs; representatives from environmental, conservation and parks groups; and alternative transportation advocates to mobilize efforts to preserve rail corridors for trail use.
By 1985, Burwell and co-founder Peter Harnik had written a detailed proposal for the creation of RTC. They shopped that proposal around and acquired support from philanthropist and conservationist Larry Rockefeller and NWF President Jay Hair, and RTC officially opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1986.
“There was no one like David Burwell. He was a voracious learner and a fearless instigator. For David, no unexplored fact was too insignificant, and no challenge was too large. From parsing legal subtleties to sketching out broad political campaigns, he was the master strategist; he could change the whole tenor of a room just by entering it,” said Harnik. “It was David who turned ‘rails-to-trails’ from an idea with very good potential into a powerful national force backed by firm legal standing, true political muscle and undeniable financial backing.”
During his 15 years as president, Burwell—who Rockefeller once called “a fireball of energy and determination and talent”—helped make rail-trails an ingrained part of the American cultural landscape. Burwell played a pivotal role in the passing of landmark federal laws to support trails and active transportation, beginning with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991. Funding provisions that Burwell helped insert in that game-changing legislation continue to this day through four subsequent reauthorizations of the law. To date, these bills have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars for the development and enhancement of rail-trails around the country.
“David helped convince Congress that the preservation of railroad corridors as trails fulfilled a transportation function. His efforts opened the Highway Trust Fund for our use. It was a miraculous accomplishment—one that has made all the difference. But his vision isn’t yet complete. He dreamed of a rail-trail that spanned the continent from coast to coast. Our challenge is to realize this, his greatest ambition, in his memory,” said Marianne Wesley Fowler, a long-time friend and colleague of Burwell and RTC’s senior strategist for policy advocacy.
A lawyer by training, Burwell's thorough knowledge of the laws that helped create rail-trails and his understanding of the role of the courts in advancing the development of rail-trails was key to the organization’s success.
“David had a genius for finding the right people with the right talents to advance his vision, and that included partnering with Charles Montange, one of RTC’s founding board members and RTC’s first general counsel. As a result of David’s leadership, RTC became the only organization that regularly goes to court to defend and protect trails,” said Andrea Ferster, RTC’s general counsel.
Burwell’s later professional credits include leadership roles with the National Research Council Transportation and Sustainability Committee and the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
David Burwell's vision and hard work were pivotal in the growth of the rail-trail movement. His mother, Barbara Burwell—an excellent trail advocacy role model to David—championed the creation of the Shining Sea Bikeway, a 10.7-mile rail-trail that runs from the ferry docks in Woods Hole to North Falmouth, Massachusetts. Barbara’s work on the Shining Sea Bikeway predated RTC and introduced David to the rail-trail concept, ultimately serving as the inspiration for his work. In 2011, RTC honored David and Barbara with Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Awards for their significant roles in helping to build and grow America’s now-thriving rail-trail movement.
Burwell is survived by his wife, Irene, son, Vitaly Ovchinnikov and Vitaly's wife, Elyse Beaulieu, two granddaughters, and his brother, Brian Burwell.