Trail Ownership in Doubt as Supreme Court Backs Landowner

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Wyoming landowner in a case that raises legal questions about thousands of miles of recreational pathways created under the federal “rails to trails” program.

On an 8-1 vote, the court today said a half-mile stretch of land on Marvin Brandt’s property, once used for a rail line, now belongs to him, not the U.S. government. The Obama administration argued that the land reverted to the government once it was formally abandoned by a railroad in 2004.

The dissenting justice, Sonia Sotomayor, said the ruling undermined the legality of thousands of miles of trails now used for recreation and transportation.

“Lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” she wrote.

The dispute stems from an 1875 federal law that granted railroads rights-of-way through public land. One such right-of-way was a 66-mile stretch through Wyoming and Colorado, used by the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad starting in 1911.

Brandt acquired his land from the U.S. government in 1976, subject to the right-of-way, which by then had changed hands. In the 1990s, the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad gave up its plan to use the strip of land as a tourist attraction. The railroad tore up the tracks and ties before surrendering its rights in 2004.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the right-of-way was an “easement,” meaning it didn’t affect the underlying ownership of the land. Expiration of the easement gave Brandt full rights to the land, Roberts said.

Roberts pointed to a 1942 case in which the government argued, and the court concluded, that the 1875 law granted only an easement. The Obama administration was arguing that the 1942 ruling “did not really mean what it said,” Roberts said.

The case is Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, 12-1173.

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