At one time in our nation’s history, the railroads were a dominant mode of transportation, encouraged and heavily subsidized by the federal government and the states. Beginning about a century ago, however, the number of miles of operating railroad lines began to decline as the railroads gave way to new alternatives, such as automobiles and airplanes. That created the problem of what to do with the thousands of miles of unused rail corridors. With the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960's and 1970's came an appealing solution: converting unused railroad rights-of-way to recreational trails for hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers, and horseback riders. Congress responded favorably to this idea by enacting various rails-to-trails programs, most prominently under the 1983 National Trails System Act which allowed for “rail-banking” of abandoned lines for temporary recreational use.
The Ohio River Trail Council (ORTC) understands that at times, that the proposed recreational use of land may come into disagreement with private property rights claimed by individual citizens. An example of this is with the rails-to-trails movement, because private property owners of land abutting or traversed by the discontinued rail line may have long believed that when the railroad ceased operating, the abandoned railroad right-of-way would under applicable property law revert to them—and that they could exercise a private property owner’s traditional right to exclude others, including recreationists. An example of this type of dispute, which found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, involved an abandoned railroad right-of-way in Burlington, Vermont, that had been converted by government officials to a popular recreational public pathway. The question, then, is whether the abandoned railroad rights-of-way coveted by recreationists and their governmental sponsors are indeed public or privately owned. The question has at times spilled over into litigation and remains unresolved.
The Ohio River Trail Council is not a land trust organization that owns property of natural value but is a leader in conserving and stewarding lands that support the scenic, recreational and environmental well-being of the communities along the Ohio River and its tributaries. The Ohio River Trail Council firmly believes the development of trails as an antidote to our economic decline and automobile congestion. The popularity and successful implementation of rails-to-trails projects to date has provided new opportunities for outdoor recreation, improved health, economic development and sustainability. Please keep in mind that the Ohio River Trail Council respects landowners’ property rights. We encourage community input at all stages of the Ohio River Project in order for all of us to come together to resolve any differences to ultimately improve our community.