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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors

A case scheduled to be heard in the Supreme Court over the next few months could threaten America's ability to convert disused rail corridors into public multi-use trails.

At issue in Marvin S. Brandt Revocable Trust et al., v. United States is whether the American people retain a reversionary interest in railroad rights-of-way that were created by the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, after railroad activity has ceased on the corridor. It is only the second time that a rail-trail case has been heard by the nation's highest court.

The corridor in this case passes through a segment of land surrounded by Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming that the U.S. Forest Service patented to the Brandt family in 1976. Bisecting that parcel is a 200-foot wide corridor of federally-owned land that had been granted to the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railway company in 1908, for the purpose of constructing a railroad.

These federally-granted rights-of-way have played a key role in the nation's rail-trail movement, which has built thousands of miles of hiking, biking, equestrian, skiing and ATV pathways across America over the past 25 years.

Recognizing the great importance of providing public access to the nation's public lands, in 2007 the U.S. Forest Service and local groups converted most of that disused corridor into the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, which has become one of the most popular rail-trails in America.

This spectacular 21-mile rail-trail, which has provided a significant boost to the state's trails tourism economy, has but one disconnection point - the Brandt property. The Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Pacific Legal Foundation are behind the Brandt's effort to sue the United States to bring the public corridor into private ownership and prevent its reuse as a publicly accessible rail-trail.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming and, later, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the United States did have a reversionary interest in the corridor, that this federally-held right-of-way could be made available as rail-trail, and rejected the Brandt's claim of ownership. However, unsatisfied with these rulings, and supported by well-financed interests, the Brandts continue to appeal.

As the only organization in America committed to defending the preservation of former railroad corridors for continued public use, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court this month defending the grand vision of our forefathers that explicitly held that these linear public spaces should remain of, and for, the people. 

The case affects more than a century of federal laws and policies protecting the public's interest in railroad corridors created through public lands - and could have lasting impacts on the future of rail-trails across the country. Just like our national parks and treasured lands to which they connect, these rail corridors are protected assets in which the public has a unique interest.

A loss before the Supreme Court would not only potentially block the public rail-trail providing access to Medicine Bow National Forest, but would also threaten rail-trails across America that utilize federally-granted rights-of-way.

Oral argument in the case is expected in January, with a decision expected later in 2014.

Learn more about our previous court win in this case ⇒

For the latest on the case and to get the up-to-date news on trails from across the country, sign up to be a part of our online community.

Photo of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail courtesy Cycle Wyoming

 


Posted Mon, Oct 21 2013 2:42 PM by Jake Lynch

Comments

DANIEL A KARACZUN wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 1:24 PM

In my view, access to rail lines, rivers, lakes and ocean front is a right of all citizens of the United States of America and should not be infringed by individuals or for profit corporations. There is a one mile detour on the Allegheny River Trail that is poached by neighboring land owners thereby making the link between Pittsurgh and Erie PA problematic for through cycling.

kenneth sloane wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 1:50 PM

Keep these abandoned railroad corridors as they were originally intended -- open for public use!

kenneth sloane wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 1:51 PM

Keep these abandoned railroad corridors as originally planned -- available for public use!

RG Schmidt wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 1:58 PM

I certainly wouldn't expect you to argue the landowner's case, but I'd sure like to know a bit more about his reasons for opposing this conversion.

Finley Dula wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 2:04 PM

I fully support the need for Rails-To-Trails.  Thousands of people use these trails every  year.  They are a place for families, young and old.

Matt Zimmerman wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 2:06 PM

The problem with this argument is, when you start taking private land owners rights away, there is no limit on how far it can go.  So I for one, who uses the trails on a more than regular basis, would have to side with the private lands owners at all costs.  This is treading on very dangerous grounds.  It's very UN-american to take private land owners right away.  If you have a good cause, there should be a fund to "rent" the land or ask permission from the land owner.  If he/she doesn't consent, the land is off limits.  Period.

People need to start standing up for their rights or there wont be any rights left to stand up for.

Gary Stevenson wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 2:06 PM

Iam on a fixed income, I wish I could help but not financially..

Miranda Ertel wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 3:33 PM

I would be happy to sign a petition if it would be helpful in any way

Lois A. Ludwig wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 3:38 PM

It is important that former railroad corridors remain the property of the American people, just as Congress intended. The good of the American people and the mandate of Congress must prevail. Why should an individual or individuals be put above the common good? These corridors should remain transportation corridors and used as rail trails.

Thank you.

Dr. Carolyn Clark wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 3:58 PM

Converting railways that are no longer used by railroad companies into public trails preserves an important piece of our national heritage.

Our forebears were wise enough to grant these corridors to the public. We owe the same respect to future generations.  We must ensure that these right-of-ways remain intact,  for all of us to enjoy.  

What a great way to experience the grandness of America ... strolling or cycling along a historic railbed!  

Tony wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 4:03 PM

"A win would reaffirm the grand vision of our forefathers that explicitly held that these linear public spaces should remain of and for the people."

As long as you can determine the the right "people"...I think these should could be shared with the ATV/MC & snowmobiling people...

Sharron newton wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 9:37 PM

Please continue to email information referencing this case. I feel it is very important the law remains the same in order to benefit Americans...able to view the beauty of our USA. My husband and I travel the country,, always riding on "Rails to Trails" . I would like to help,

Sharron Newton

Mike Mc wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Wed, Oct 23 2013 9:47 PM

Did the land owner file suit because he doesn't want people transiting across what he thinks is his land?

jtw wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 2:47 AM

Here in Montana, there are numerous instances -- particularly on the old Milwaukee Road corridor -- where sections of abandoned rail bed have been acquired (purchased?) and developed by private parties or entities.  In many cases, homes and other buildings have been constructed directly on the old right-of-way, forever (or, nearly so...) preventing any future use of the route by the public.  

How was/is this possible given the above statement,  "Congress accomplished this by requiring that these corridors remain the property of the American people should the railroad ever abandon or forfeit them?" It seems unlikely that the houses, machine shops, and other structures will be easily (and willingly) relocated if folks decide that the corridor would make for a nice recreational trail.  Which is a shame:  The land was once public; it should revert back to that status ultimately.  So, how did this situation come about?  And, do we have any recourse???

Captain Jeff wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 7:47 AM

Sick of seeing malls, highways, high rises and the like taking away all of our precious land. With all vacant structures throughout the U.S.....please demo & rebuild, repurpose, reduce & recycle.

Lanette wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 9:05 AM

It seems to me that, the rights of the landowner to the railbed in question has long since been settled - after all, there was once an active railway through there.  To convert that to a useable trail not only improves the value of property - having a house next to a trail system is generally very attractive, but there should be no question as to the ownership or rights to the land, as the rights are already owned by the federal government.

Bill Krumpter wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 11:03 AM

@ Matt Zimmerman -- I understand your point, but respectfully disagree for this reason: If the rail line property was public land used by the rail line builders, but without transfer of ownership from the US to the rail lines, and the US 'permission to use' agreement specified that the property would revert to US property (i.e., protected public lands) when the rail lines no longer used the property, then there is no basis for your argument.

@ jtw -- Were those unused rail line segments REALLY purchased from the rightful owner -- the U.S. Government? Or did the buyers merely pay the local town because the town managers did not know about the specific provision that the unused rail line properties reverted to US Government ownership once the rail lines stopped using them?. If the latter is true, then the 'purchase' transaction was illegal and the buildings were constructed on public land in violation of US laws. At first glance, one would think that the buildings would have to be torn down and the site returned to its original condition to benefit the public the way the US Government intended at the time. Someone did something wrong, and righting that wrong will be difficult -- with the only solution other than moving or destroying the buildings being the transfer of town- or county-owned land of similar configuration to the US Government for use as intended.

Larry G wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 1:39 PM

Re. Bill Krumpter, I say "Amen".  But might be helpful if we had more info, i.e., on what grounds does the landowner think he's entitled to the rail corridor?  Here in Wenatchee, WA, we've been fighting a local farmer for a trail extension corridor for some 15 years. The trail's on State Highway land (he has a lease).  Plan includes numerous safeguards -- e.g., trail closures during times of orchard spraying-- but not good enough or him.  Sources claim he spent about $ 0.5M in legal fees trying to block the project but - too bad for him-- he lost and the trail is now under construction.  Although he claims "hardship" for his operation, the real reason is more like he just doesn't like families enjoying a walk along the river or lycra-clad cyclists.  

Richard aver wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 6:18 PM

Time to move my donations from a political party to an organzation that stands for something.....

Timothy wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 6:25 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with Matt Zimmerman.The latest rail trail here in Kentucky"The Dawkins Trail" is within forty feet of my home.The trail rests on former RJ Corman railbed that was given to the then BSandKR Railway with the understanding that my grandfather would be depot agent.As far as I know this was so until the closing of the depot.Also I do not know if the deed stated that said land would revert to my grandfather or his heirs in the event this land should cease to by used by any railroad.

Mary G wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 9:10 PM

I'm all for these wonderful biking/hiking trails, but consider this: in the late 1800s my ancestors gladly allowed the railroad to build through the middle of their cropland with the proviso that the right of way revert to the landowners if the railroad was ever abandoned. The railroad runs through a river valley completely owned by the landowner. There is a federal highway 2 miles away along the edge of the ranch, but not in such beautiful scenery. For over 100 years owners and employees have negotiated the RR crossings with increasingly expensive insurance policies and restrictions. I object to the idea that this corridor belongs to the Federal Government in any way--it was a private transaction, this is private land, and returning the land to a single undivided piece would provide real relief to the landowners. The railroad is still in use, and will probably never be abandoned, but the prospect of such a conversion to open access (by mostly responsible citizens, I grant you) is extremely unpleasant to consider.

Bob Nupp wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Thu, Oct 24 2013 9:40 PM

I am not a lawyer but did some quick reading of the court filings at the scotusblog web site for Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States.

Looks like the US government in 1976 patented about 80 acres of Wyoming land to the Brandt family. That land had a railway running through it. The Patent had text that said that the land was subject to railroad use, but didn't specifically mention what happens when the railroad leaves. The railroad did exactly that -- they abandoned the line in 2004.

The US claims that the land under the right-of-way should revert back to the US as implied in the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875.

Brandt family claims that the railroad right to the land is more like an easement and when they leave, ownership reverts back to the surrounding land owner, not the US. They refer to court cases in 1942 and 2005 that did not agree with the "implied reversion" of ownership to the US.

Again, I am not a lawyer, but the crux seems to be whether the US continues to own the land underneath a railroad right-of-way when they patent the surrounding land to a private owner. The Act of 1875 did not explicitly allow the US to keep the railway land, but was it implied? Depends on what court you ask.

Bud Busch wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Fri, Oct 25 2013 12:42 PM

Yes, I agree with some of the comments regarding the rights of humans to not having to buckle under the demands of government, but there is the idea that we must also be subject to our fellow humans and their needs.  So, where do we draw the line? As I perceive the situation the individual who is questioning the right-of-way is either greedy and doesn't think he should be concerned about his fellow humans or thinks the world owes him and the land is his only. Did his ancestors not take the land away from the people who had been here thousands of years ago? Well that is different. Is It? We are on this earth for such a little time.  Is it right for an individual to think they can "Really" own the land or does it belong to all humans? He is right to question the situation but the rest of us have the right to question his demands.  The needs of all who can benefit should come before one individual. So, Sir, I look to you to make the decision that benefits "all of us" in being able to use the land.

The land in question was set aside to benefit the people. It was the 'government of the people' who decided this and that it was to remain for Public use and not to be used by any individual for their own private profit.  

Doug Phillips wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Mon, Oct 28 2013 1:42 AM

Railway corridors were built by the forefathers of our nation. They are historical links to our early United States history.  If would be a grave decision to relinquish these paths of beauty for selfish interests.  In the Sacramento area we are working to bring back to life several railroad corridors that have been dormant for decades.  One is the Folsom railroad that goes to Placerville.  It will be turned into a rail and jogging/ bicycling route.  Dual use like the one that goes to the historic railroad museum in downtown Sacramento.  There is a vision in Northern California to reactivate the dormant corridors for enthusiasts to participate on and travel the route the old steam locomotives travels on a diesel locomotive.  It is a promising time here in the Sacramento valley.  

Roberto G. wrote re: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to defend rail-trails in the Supreme Court: Wyoming landowner threatens public ownership of rail corridors
on Tue, Dec 17 2013 8:15 PM

So the "Cato Institute" is one of the backer's behind the Brandt litigation.  Just who are some of those people.  Eric O'Keefe - see this link - http://www.eric-okeefe.com/ -Behind O'Keefe is the "Club for Growth" See the 990 filed by Wisconsin Club for Growth - where Eric OKeefe is listed as a director.  And who is the Club for Growth -Just Google that organization and you will find out. Special interests vs. the public good.  

The land at it's inception belonged to the People - you and I.  "Conditional use" so to speak was granted, the reason to promote the development of railways in the West. A good discussion of this is at the following link.  congressionalresearch.com/.../document.

The land began as public land and now that railroads no longer meet the conditions for the use of that public land, it again belongs to the People, not anyone else.  

Much like the National Parks and other public lands held for the public trust, this is not a taking of anything that the Brandt trust ever owned.  If the railroads continued to use that land, they could have no present claim of ownership.  If the railroads sought to transfer any interest in the land for anything besides use as a railroad, they would be unable to do so as they held the land for use only as a railroad right of way.  Plain and simple, the land belongs to the people.  Hopefully the Supreme Court of this country sees the issue this way.    

 

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