Throughout the 19th century, Congress would spur track expansion by granting tracts of land and other property rights to private railroad operators. These days, however, more tracks are getting torn up than put down. In many instances, this causes certain property rights to revert back to original owners. At least that’s how it’s supposed to happen, according to a landmark Supreme Court decision in March that focused on rails-to-trails projects. One justice wrote that Congress “granted an easement and nothing more” — meaning that without an operating rail system there are no lingering right-of-ways for recreational trails. Although the ruling centered on a case in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest, its impact will be felt in dozens of states with ongoing cases where owners are challenging rails-to-trails projects.
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