Supreme Court ruling may derail trails


A U.S. Supreme Court decision affecting the legality of a rails-to-trail route in Wyoming has left local officials wondering if the decision will affect any of the multiple recreation trails in the Inland Northwest.

The court on Monday sided with a Wyoming property owner in a dispute over a bicycle trail that follows the route of an abandoned railroad. The decision could force the government to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate landowners.

The justices ruled 8-1 Monday that property owner Marvin Brandt remains the owner of a 200-foot-wide trail that crosses his 83-acre parcel in southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. The trail once was the path of a railroad and is among thousands of miles of abandoned railroads that have been converted to recreational trails.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the government was wrong to assert that it owns the trail.

The government says it faces compensation claims involving 10,000 properties in 30 states, possibly topping $100 million.

In Washington, the state parks department purchased former rail rights-of-way as part of the development of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and the Columbia Plateau Trail, parks planner Jamie Van De Vanter said.

“We have the property, for the most part,” he said.

About 92.5 percent of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail reaching from North Bend to the Idaho state line near Tekoa is state-owned.The court ruling is not expected to affect most rails-to trails projects in the state.

Property owners near Rock Lake sued to retain ownership of one section of the former Milwaukee Road rail line, and that section is off-limits.

The city of Spokane purchased a former Union Pacific right-of-way in 1991 that has been converted into the popular Fish Lake Trail.

In Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service developed the Route of the Hiawatha through St. Paul Pass tunnel into the headwaters of the St. Joe River. That trail is on the same Milwaukee Road route.

And the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes bike trail that runs along a former Union Pacific Railroad line from Plummer to Mullan was built as part of a required cleanup of contaminated soil. The deal was reached through a consent decree signed by the Idaho governor in 1999.

The Klickitat Trail on the Klickitat River in south-central Washington is state owned, as well as the Willapa Hills Trail from Chehalis to Raymond in southwest Washington, Painter said.

The dispute has its roots in the settlement and development of the western United States in the 1800s. The government gave railroads the right to lay track on public lands to make it easier for people to get to and live in the West. Later, the government gave away millions of acres of public land to settlers and homesteaders, but preserved the railroads’ path through these once-public lands.

Click here to comment on this story »