Trails officials say Iowa trails safe from Supreme Court ruling

Case addresses who has rights to land where railroad lines have been abandoned

Published: March 12 2014 | 4:30 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:31 am in

Iowa trail systems appear to be shielded from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that have advocates nervous about current and future recreational trails.

The case addresses who has rights to land where railroad lines have been abandoned. In recent years, many abandoned lines have been converted into recreational trails, including 76 open rail-trails in Iowa, comprising 797 miles with an additional 175 miles in planning stages.

The Court ruled 8-1 on Monday that a stretch of abandoned railway in Wyoming, which had been converted to a bike trail, did not revert to the government, but rather to the adjacent property owner, Marvin Brandt.

The case specifically affects railroads built after 1875 when Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act, which allowed railroads to build on public land to help settle western United States.

The Court ruled on Monday this land for railroads was an "easement" and should be returned to the property owner not the government if abandoned.

The lawsuit could cost taxpayers millions of dollars to settle similar lawsuits dealing with railroad to recreational trail conversions, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the lone dissenting opinion. The national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy warned on its website the ruling could "threaten existing rail-trails across America that utilize federally-granted rights-of-way."

Although, since then, the organization has said while the ruling is disappointing it has a narrower reach than first thought.

In Iowa, a number of popular trails are built on old rail lines, including the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, the High Trestle Trail in the Des Moines area and the Wabash Trace Trail in Western Iowa.

However, Iowa trails appear to be shielded from this ruling, said Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations for the Washington D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

"Iowa was pretty well developed by 1875," Fowler said.

Virtually all the major trails in Iowa are what is considered "rail banked." This means the corridor where the railroad was located is preserved and potentially could be put back into use at some point in the future, Fowler said.

"They should be safe unless it turns out there is a section that wasn't rail banked, but that would be pretty unusual," Fowler said.

However, there isn't a way to be certain, and we may not know for sure until a stretch of trail is questioned by an individual either directly with their local municipality or through a lawsuit, she said.

Lisa Hein, program and planning director with Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, agreed that Iowa trails appear safe.

"In Iowa, for the most part, railroads bought land from landowners," she said. "They've been rail banked, so they have not been abandoned. They are still considered intact corridors."

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