Fans of Michigan’s rails-to-trails networks were shaken Monday, March 10, when the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling that gave victory to a landowner, the Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust, near Laramie, Wyoming, who sued to stop an abandoned railroad easement from being converted to a bicycle trail. Michigan cyclists wondered, what does this mean for their favorite rails-to-trails routes?

For a closer look, we called attorney Tom Phillips, who has served as lead attorney for TART Trails as they’ve built their rails-to-trails network.

Let’s start with a synopsis of the Wyoming case, which as we understand it involves some long-ago legislation.

Phillips: Yes, the history is that after the Louisiana Purchase and the advent of the railroad, the United States government passed legislation in 1875 that granted right of way railroad easements through federal land. So that allowed for the Transcontinental Railroad to be built. Eventually surrounding lands were homesteaded, and the homesteaders took that land subject to the railroad right of way.

In the Brandt case, the railroad company that was running the rails through their property stopped service on those tracks, and there was a provision in the law that said if the railroad stopped using the right of way for five years, it would revert to the original owner. So a central issue in the case is whether “original owner” meant the U.S. government or the Brandt trust, and the Supreme Court ruled that it meant the Brandt trust.

What does this mean for rails to trails in Michigan and, more specifically, TART Trails?

Phillips: The impact of that case would be limited to the unique facts of that case. Here in Michigan I’m not aware of land that dealt with the federal right of ways. The Leelanau Trail in particular, those were all deeded rail easements, fee deeds, just like buying a piece of land or a house, so the ruling would not have any effect. It’s unlikely that Brandt would have any impact on the state of Michigan’s trails.

Photo(s) by Jeff Smith