Happy Rails to You

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN DAVID BURWELL WAS A HIGH school senior on Massachusetts' Cape Cod in 1964, his mother, Barbara, head of a local recreation committee, decided an abandoned railroad track near their house could easily be converted to a paved bike path. She was right—and wrong. The 3½-mile railbed between Woods Hole and Falmouth is now used by hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists a day. But it took a dozen years of meetings, referendums, negotiations, legal proceedings and plain old agitation to put through the change.

In 1986, Burwell, then an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., remembered his mother's aggravations. With more and more railroads going bankrupt, he and environmental activist Peter Harnik formed the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that helps local communities turn abandoned rail corridors into paths for biking, hiking, jogging, horseback riding, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. The trails are extremely narrow nature preserves—"linear parks" up to 400 feet wide. Some follow historical routes, such as the one Lewis and Clark took up the Missouri River. And all promote tourism, boosting local economies. "The more I found out about this," says Burwell, "the more I saw how attractive these corridors are."

And so did a growing number of his countrymen. This month Rails-to-Trails celebrated its 500th trail—and more than 6,000 miles of converted rights-of-way in 44 states. Someday—no target date has been set—it hopes to have 50,000 miles of trails, including a network that stretches coast to coast. That goal is not out of the question. Before Rails-to-Trails began, 9 out of 10 projects failed. Now, 9 out of 10 succeed. "Until we started, everybody who was working on a rail-trail was doing so in total isolation from everybody else," says Harnik, 43. "They were reinventing the wheel each time around."

The Rails-to-Trails founders came to their calling from opposite directions. Burwell, 45, grew up in smalltown Woods Hole, one of four children of outdoors-minded parents. While a teenager, he attended four years of a special summer science school. And after graduating from the University of Virginia law school, he eventually wound up on the staff of the National Wildlife Federation.

Harnik was a city kid, the older of two brothers, raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side by Austrian refugees who fled from the Nazis. As a journalism student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he was inspired by Earth Day, 1970, and began a career as an environmental writer. An ardent bicyclist, Harnik commutes to work each day by bike from his home in Arlington, Va. He also cycles on weekends with his wife, Carol Parker, who works in the pesticide program at the Environmental Protection Agency, and with their two children, Andrew, 11, and Rebecca, 4.

Burwell and Harnick have found that removing tracks is relatively easy since salvage companies are eager for the job. What's hard is raising money, buying rights-of-way and fighting red tape. That's where the national Rails-to-Trails comes in, helping out local volunteers who may have no idea, for example, how to trace the land purchases and leases railroads used to acquire rights-of-way. Plus Burwell and Harnik keep up with the 3,000 miles of track that fall out of use each year, property that could all too easily be developed or farmed. "It's a little like Humpty Dumpty," Burwell says. "Once it falls apart, you can't put it back together again."

Not everyone wants to. In 1981 a Burlington, Vt., couple, J. Paul and Patricia Preseault, began a court case to fight construction of a paved bike and jogging path on a former railbed overlooking Lake Champlain. In what has become a test case, they argued that the land belonged to them, since it had never actually been sold to the railroad but merely leased under an easement granted by a previous owner in 1899. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Two years ago it ruled unanimously that the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulates railroads, could "greenbank" rights-of-way against the day they might again be used by a railroad. But the court did allow the Preseaults to seek compensation in the U.S. Claims Court. A decision is expected soon.

Most opposition, though, comes from landowners who fear a loss of privacy. "They don't want new people coming in who were never there before," says Dick Welch, executive secretary of the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners, a group formed to fight Rails-to-Trails. "People who live a couple blocks away think it's a piece of cake, but it's an endless stream when you live next to one of these things."

Burwell and Harnik have heard the objections many times before from people who fear a rise in crime and a decline in property values. Harnik answers by citing studies by the National Park Service and the city of Seattle which found no increase in vandalism and showed that property along the trails actually appreciated. "You're getting rid of an eyesore, and you're getting a nice park instead," he says.

Burwell, a railroad buff, and his wife, Elizabeth Hennings, project director at the Smithsonian, plan their vacations around historic lines that have been converted to trails. Harnik sticks to the city, regularly biking the trails around Washington. "I would go crazy in the wilderness," he says. "But these trails are the best of both worlds. I can be out in nature and still be in the city. I don't have to drive five or six hours to get away from it all."

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