Rails to Trails
by Jennifer Kaleba, RAC member
A World of Opportunities
I was running my first marathon, albeit a practice run, and 26.2 miles never looked longer. But I knew I had one good thing going for me - I was running it on a rail-trail.
As the September sun threatened to reduce me to a puddle near mile 18, I passed into the dappled shadow of a wooded neighborhood. Able to breathe again, I took in my fellow trail users: kids on bikes; dogs racing enthusiastically with their owners; an inline skater whizzing past in a burst of tailwind. How could I despair when I was in such good company?
In a matter of hours I had toured my local landscape, something I rarely get to see from the interstate. I had eased out of the urban bustle, towards the heart of suburban communities, and into the open arms of countryside. I didn't need to concern myself with street traffic, and the gentle, flat grade-a natural benefit of developing a multi-use trail on a former railroad corridor-ensured my spirit would never deflate at the sight of a monster hill.
This particular rail-trail, the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, begins in densely populated northern Virginia and ends ensconced in farmland and forests. At 45 miles, the W&OD (as it's commonly called) is just one of nearly 1,300 rail-trails in the United States. Many are slips of linear greenways scattered throughout America and enjoyed by the locals they serve. Others are behemoths like Missouri's 225 mile Katy Trail State Park that draws trail-tourists from coast-to-coast.
Rails-to-Trails: The President's Story
It's the mission of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) - the organization that advocates for the continued development and funding of these trails - to see the impact of rail-trails grow, forming networks and connecting communities. The idea: With a healthy trail system comes a healthy community; physically, economically, environmentally and socially.
"RTC's bold goal is that by the year 2020, nine percent of Americans will live within three miles of a trail system," says RTC President Keith Laughlin. He knows this goal is ambitious, but it's one Laughlin believes is vital and possible. "Rail-trails are pleasant, easily accessible public places that give us the opportunity for both solitude and social experience. They're like the back porch of America."
Laughlin's first introduction to rail-trails in 1996 wasn't intended to sway him in their favor. "I was visiting a friend in northern Michigan whose father, at the time, was the leading opponent to the Leelanau Trail project. The trail passed behind his house and he took me out there, showed me the trail and told me how this was a terrible thing. I thought he was totally wrong, but I kept my mouth shut."
That same year, when Laughlin was serving as executive director of the White House Task Force on Livable Communities, RTC was presented with a Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, a competition which Laughlin oversaw, "I was very supportive of RTC winning the award." When Laughlin became RTC's second president in February 2001, he inherited the RTC mantel - and the Sustainable Development statue he'd helped award the organization five years earlier.
In 2004, Laughlin traveled back to northern Michigan and rode on the southern section of now-developed Leelanau Trail. Laughlin says visiting the trail that began it all was like "seeing a dream turn into a reality."
A Trail Conservancy is Born
A rail-trail, by definition, is a former railroad right-of-way recycled into a public trail. While the concept has been in scattered practice since the mid-1960s, the movement didn't officially begin until RTC opened its doors on February 7, 1986 with a three-person staff - including RTC cofounders David Burwell and Peter Harnik - and a goal to preserve this little-known public asset.
"In the late '70s and early '80s, thousands of miles of rail were being abandoned each year," says Burwell, RTC's first and former president as well as a VIP member of the Run America Club. "Many major railroads were going belly-up. If we didn't make a move, we were going to lose the opportunity to save these corridors."
Burwell speaks from experience. As a high school student on Cape Cod in 1976, his mother led his town's recreation committee in the transformation of an unused section of the New Haven railroad corridor into the stunning Shining Sea Bikeway. Not ten years later, Burwell, then a lawyer for National Wildlife Federation (NWF), saw a chance to preserve these rights-of-way on a national scale, so he gathered various environmental and recreational advocates together to form a plan. Peter Harnik was one of the first people Burwell called upon.
Harnik had been involved with the early development of the W&OD and published an article extolling the virtues of rail-trails - a term he coined. As the notion of a rails-to-trails movement grew, Harnik recalls the team establishing a need for an independent organization to be formed, but not without reservations. "We all thought it was way too specific a concept to ever get off the ground," Harnik confesses. "But that turned out to be 180-degrees wrong."
After a rails-to-trails manifesto written by Burwell reached the desk of Laurance Rockefeller, the movement received the legs it required in the form of Rockefeller's $75,000 donation, and NWF president Jay Hair matched the amount to cover a year of operations. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was off and running.
"RTC had about 70,000 members in the first two years. There was a strong public demand for preserving these corridors," says Burwell.
Burwell believes the support and popularity of rail-trails is because they span the interests of recreationists, environmentalists, preservationists, healthy living activists and many others. "Whatever your problem is, rail-trails are the answer," he says.
Peter Harnik has been keeping count: to date he's been on 137 rail-trails. Though he says RTC obviously didn't create all 1,300 trails - trails are developed on the local level while RTC acts as a national advocate - he says without RTC many railtrails would not have come to pass. "This wasn't a movement until RTC made it one," Harnik says. "It was a case of a single entity taking the disparate strands of local enthusiasm and weaving them into a national tapestry."
As in Keith Laughlin's experience, there are those who are not enthusiastic to have the unused corridors behind their homes and businesses "woven" into a trail. Harnik isn't surprised, "People are often opposed to change and new ideas. But most people opposed to what we're doing end up loving it when the trail opens. We work fairly with people who have legitimate claims relating to private property that their ancestors had previously owned [before the railroad was built], but we are creating an infrastructure for public benefit for years to come. It's good for America to have these beautiful necklaces of public land."
With funding advocates on Capitol Hill, development experts in the field, and more than 100,000 members and supporters, RTC is spreading the word that rail-trails are more than just strips of recycled land. They're avenues toward a more connected, healthier America.
And more people are getting the message. In 2004, RTC launched "Rail-Trail Runners," a team of RTC supporters who train and raise funds to run the Marine Corps Marathon under the RTC banner. Bicycle rides organized by RTC's field offices in Michigan and Pennsylvania take place annually, and the grassroots effort to create more rail-trails continues to grow.
"By developing these rail-trails and networks, we're creating a legacy," says RTC President Keith Laughlin. "Future generations will be able to feel the same joy and exhilaration I feel when I get out on a rail-trail."
About the Author: Club member since 2004, Jennifer Kaleba is a writer and communications manager for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.