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Barbara Burwell Inspires Son, David, and a National Rail-Trail Movement

At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) 25th Anniversary celebration in October, we honored a group of men and women--the inaugural Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions--who have made a remarkable contribution to the rail-trail movement during the past quarter century. We will be posting a blog story on each of the honorees during the coming weeks. Today we pay tribute to David Burwell, RTC's co-founder, and his mother, Barbara, who inspired her son's passion for trails.

The history of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) be­gins with David Burwell. When he and Peter Harnik founded RTC in 1986, there were just a few dozen rail-trails in the country. But during the 15 years he led the nonprofit he helped create, rail-trails became a much-loved part of the American landscape, and an integral part of our recreation and transportation vernacular.

As a young man, Burwell was fortunate to have an excellent role model in trails advocacy. His mother, Barbara Burwell, championed the creation of the Shining Sea Bikeway in Massachusetts and worked for many years to see it to completion. Today, the 10.8-mile rail-trail runs from the ferry docks in Woods Hole to North Falmouth, Mass.

In many ways, Barbara Burwell's remarkable commitment in transforming a disused rail line on the Cape Cod peninsula into a much-loved community asset was a precise blueprint for what RTC would one day become.

With friend Joan Kanwisher, Barbara Burwell rallied community support, worked with local officials, planners and landowners, and found funding sources. Their success is all the more remarkable for the fact that they were doing all this in 1965; decades before any kind of rail-trail movement in America, Barbara and Joan did not have the resources and support many of us can rely on today.

Barbara's legacy is not limited to the Shining Sea Bikeway. For just as she was working to build that rail-trail, she was inspiring a young man who would grow up to be instrumental in building thousands of miles of rail-trail across America. The extraordinary success of the Shining Sea Bikeway, and the transformative effect it had on his community, convinced David to form RTC with Peter Harnik in 1986. When his mother asked what his vision was for RTC, he replied that he wanted to "start at the Shining Sea Bikeway and go all the way to San Francisco."

Twenty-five years later, David Burwell's organization has helped build enough rail-trail miles to do that distance many times over.

In addition to his mother's example, David had discovered other practical recommendations for trails built along former rail lines.  In "The Shining Sea Bikeway - A Triumph of Citizen Action," a history of the trail written by W. Redmond Wright, David said, "It was the Woods Hole Red Sox that sold me on rail-trails. During the three years I played on the team (1957-1960) the bike ride to the ball field was even more daunting than facing Johnnie Hough of the Hornets... Despite my parents' stern warning to "stay off the railroad tracks!" I often bounced my fat-tired Schwinn along the track that ran in a straight line from the end of our driveway to the ferry docks - no hills!"

A lawyer by training, David's thorough knowl­edge of railbanking legislation and understanding of the role of the courts in advancing the develop­ment of rail-trails was a key to the continued success of RTC. In 1990, he was the founding co-chair of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a national transportation policy reform coalition. After his time at RTC, David became STPP's presi­dent. He also served as the director of the National Wildlife Federation's Transportation and Infrastruc­ture Program, and the first chair of the National Research Council's Transportation and Sustainability Committee, among many other roles.

David is currently the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his work focuses on the intersection between energy, transportation and climate issues.

In dedicating his Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion grant to the Falmouth Bikeways Committee, which directs maintenance of the Shining Sea Bikeway, David said he was paying tribute to his mother, and to all rail-trail champions who face great obstacles in creating new trails in communities across America.

Photo of David Burwell with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Photo of Barbara and David Burwell on the Shining Sea Bikeway in 1998 by Robbie McClaran/courtesy of Woods Hole Historical Collection 


Posted Tue, Nov 15 2011 1:30 PM by Jake Lynch

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