American Heritage: A Celebration of Trails

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Among the many millennium celebrations striving toward a vision for the future, one of the more ecological is the Millennium Celebration of Trails, a government-sponsored campaign whose many cultural events will emphasize the importance of trails in American heritage and initiate 2,000 local trail projects across the country.

Particularly pleased about the celebration are members of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, an umbrella organization founded in 1985 with around 80,000 members and five field offices. The conservancy’s purpose is to preserve railroad paths’ rights of way. America’s 1,000th railroad trail opened last fall, and there are now more than 10,000 miles of rail trails in the country. The Conservancy says the national network of rail trails is roughly equivalent to a full quarter of the length of the U.S. Interstate system.

Karen Stewart, editor of the Conservancy’s Rails to Trails magazine, has found that trails may tend to enhance property values; trailside houses are often more expensive. Stewart argues that rail trails can bring many other economic benefits to their communities. “When the trains left, a lot of small towns dried up. When the trail came through, it really rejuvenated these places.” Bed and breakfasts, antique stores, and ice cream shops now thrive along frequently traveled trails.

“The beauty of rail trails is they still do what they were built to do–connect communities and circle communities. They also connect parks and neighborhoods to communities,” Stewart says. She believes the rail trails are successful and popular mainly because of their level grade. “Most don’t exceed 3-4 percent grade so everyone–whether in wheelchairs, baby strollers, or bicycles–can use them. The trails really are an alternative means of traveling and recreating because there is never any danger of encountering cars.”

Early in the twentieth century, America had the largest railroad system in the world with about 300,000 miles of track. In the last twenty years, as railroads have continued to decline, federal legislation and funding to convert rails to trails and support trails in general has continually expanded. When a railroad applies for abandonment to the Surface Transportation Board, its rail can be sold, usually to a state, county, city, or not-for-profit group. The new owners raise funds for trail building and main­tenance, or lobby to get these services donated by corporations or the community. Another way that rails have become trails is through a law that allows railroads to engage in a practice called “railbanking,” where corridors originally assembled for rail transportation are held in trust for future transportation needs while permitting temporary use as rail trails. NH
–Molly Miller