Supreme Court ruling threatens rails to trails |

Supreme Court ruling threatens rails to trails

Pedestrians make their way down the Rio Grande Trail in Aspen Tuesday. A U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday created questions about ownership of some rail right-of-ways that were converted to trails.
Aubree Dallas | Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

The 42-mile Rio Grande Trail doesn’t appear to be in imminent threat of getting seized by private landowners despite a decision Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the justices’ ruling has created questions about the security of ownership of hundreds of old railroad grades that have been converted to trails, according to Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations for the Rails To Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

Each case will have to be decided on an individual basis after the justices voted, 8-1, that federally granted rights-of-way that were abandoned by railroads can rightfully be claimed by private landowners with a valid interest in the property.

“We don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” Fowler said. “We don’t even know if there is a problem.”

“We don’t know the magnitude of the problem.”
Marianne Fowler, Rails to Trails Conservancy

Thousands of residents and visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley will be interested in the status of the Rio Grande Trail, a popular route for cyclists and pedestrians between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy, which teamed with the federal government in the Supreme Court case, sounded an urgent alarm “to rail-trail advocates and trail users around the country” in a statement posted Monday on its website. The Supreme Court justices’ decision “threatens existing rail-trails, mainly in the West, that utilize federally-granted rights-of-way and are not railbanked,” the statement said. Prior to the court ruling, the conservancy listed the Rio Grande Trail as an example of popular route’s that could be affected by the decision.

However, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said Tuesday he was assured by legal consultants that proper steps have been taken to avoid challenges of ownership of 34 miles of the Rio Grande Trail that RFTA owns.

“We’re not in jeopardy of losing our corridor,” Blankenship said.

The key is that the corridor was never abandoned by a railroad, Blankenship said. RFTA’s predecessor purchased the corridor in October 1996 from Southern Pacific Railroad for $8.5 million. The corridor was formally reserved for railroad activity — a term called “railbanking” — even though the tracks were torn up and the railbed has been converted, at least temporarily, to a pedestrian trail. The federal Surface Transportation Board approved the railbanking status.

Blankenship said he consulted Monday with two attorneys who helped the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, the predecessor of RFTA, with the railbanking.

“Both of them opined that this doesn’t have implications to the Rio Grande Trail,” he said.

Pitkin County attorney John Ely said he hopes that is correct, but research must be undertaken to make sure ownership of the corridor is secure, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Pitkin County owns an 8-mile stretch of the Rio Grande Trail from Woody Creek to Aspen. Details on when it was acquired by the county weren’t available immediately, but it appears to be in the late 1960s.

Ely said he wants to make sure that the railbanking is enough to secure ownership. “It gets kind of dicey because they look at the use of the corridor,” he said.

His staff will perform the research relatively quickly because, he said, everyone interested in using and maintaining the trail will want confirmation that ownership is secure.

Fowler said the tough part of determining a rail-trail’s status is finding out if federal lands were used to establish the railroad. The federal government approved the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. After that, the government granted permission to railroads to cross federal lands. In many cases, federal lands were patented to private landowners along the railroad corridors. That sets up a scenario where owners of the patented lands can claim ownership of an abandoned railroad right-of-way, Fowler said.

When told that RFTA believes its ownership is secure, Fowler replied, “I hope they’re right. That doesn’t mean it won’t be challenged.”

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