On Monday March 10, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Wyoming landowner who objected to a government plan to extend a pathway across his land. That proposed pathway was part of the nation’s Rails-To-Trails program, which works to transform abandoned railways to mixed-use trails around the nation. A local example is the Capital Crescent Trail, which started life as a railway and is now one of the most popular pathways in the DC area.

So why is this ruling a problem? Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained in her dissenting opinion: “[the decision] undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as a means of transportation and recreation.” Additionally, the ruling could result in further litigation over the trails already in place, including compensation claims filed by landowners.

But why are rails to trails so important? First, by transforming railroads to bike and walking trails (instead of say, roads or buildings) more of the natural environment is preserved. Second, having accessible trails increases the physical activity of a population. Why drive to work when you can ride your bike down a safe paved trail and get your workout and your commute taken care of at once? Third, they provide a safe place for children to learn how to ride bikes – a smooth, level surface free from cars! Fourth, they encourage tourism in areas formerly ignored as “flyover” regions. If there’s a scenic bike trail that goes through your county, people will want to ride it. And since people like sleeping in beds and eating hot food, they’ll probably come and spend money in your hotels and restaurants!

If you’re interested in learning more about the Rails-to-Trails program and getting involved, be sure to visit the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. To find a bike trail near you, visit TrailLink.com.

Image Credit: Neil and Kathy Carey