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By: Robert Janis


Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Adds More to Nation’s Trail System

In the late 19th and 20th centuries the railroad was a major way to transport people and goods around the United States. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the countryside and even existed along the outskirts of big cities. However, today the railroad is being used less, and many tracks are no longer used at all. So what happens to these old, unused rail corridors?

Many of them are being turned into trails for all sorts of recreation from hiking to horseback, bicycling, and ATV riding and more. The conversion of a rail corridor to a trail is known as Rail-Trail, and it has been happening since the mid-1960s. In the early days many of these conversions were taking place in the Midwest. However, through the years the rail-trail movement has grown to more than 15,000 miles of open trail and more than 8,000 miles in the works all across the country. How a trail is used is determined by the local trail manager and user groups.

One group that has been a national leader in the advocacy and development of these multi-purpose trails is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Based in Washington, D.C., the non-profit organization was started in 1986 by David Burwell, a lawyer with the National Wildlife Federation, and David Harnick, a renowned environmental advocate. The mission is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.

According to Jeffrey Ciabotti, vice president of trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the organization is now focusing on developing trail systems that link all facets of a community together through what they’re calling an “active transportation network.” In order to make those networks come together RTC is working at the national level to encourage increased federal investment on bicycle, pedestrian, and trail infrastructure; working with many urban communities to facilitate involvement and use of nearby trails for healthy activity; and enhance their web site services for finding trails and accessing a multitude of trail-building resources. Visit and for more information on what RTC is doing and where the trails are near you.

RTC is focusing on three major programs:

  1. The Campaign for Active Transportation, which is related to an upcoming transportation bill in Congress. The concern is to make certain that there is funding for trails and trail-friendly policy incorporated in the legislation.
  2. Urban Pathways. This is an initiative that works with urban communities to encourage involvement and use of nearby trails. The goal of the initiative is to get more people using more trails to get healthy.
  3. Developing the groups electronic platform or websites to make them as state-of-the-art as possible for free and easy access to information.
    The transportation bill referred to is the Transportation Re-authorization Bill, legislation that is re-authorized by Congress every six to seven years. Ciabotti noted that the bill includes a provision called “Transportation and Enhancement,” which has been a major source of funds for planning and acquisition of trails including rail-trails across the country since 1991. “We are working to protect it in the new bill,” explained Ciabotti. “We are also trying to grow interest in a program we call ‘Active Transportation,’ which is a call to develop a system of trails and greenways that connect into a larger transportation system in a community to make it possible for people to commute to and from work, to take short trips to pick up groceries, to walk to visit friends, and more.”

As to the Urban Pathways, Ciabotti said that Rails-to-Trails is targeting population centers to develop trails and connecting them with corridors. The group wants these pathways to be as close to as many people as possible. “Our goal is by 2020 to have 90 percent of the nation’s population living within 3 miles of a trail system,” said Ciabotti.

Developing an electronics platform or websites is a major tool through which the organization promotes its agenda and educates and informs the public. The website ( includes forums, blogs, and all the latest electronic ways to get the word out. Also, Rails-to-Trails also has a website ( which assists people in finding trails. It lists all the open trails and the status of trail projects throughout the United States. “You can look up where a trail is in proximity to where you are and where you want to go. It includes maps and provides information about points of interest along the trails as well as other information. It is one of the nation’s best trail websites, and it is a great way to build your next trail journey,” said Ciabotti.

The organization also has educational workshops as well as conferences that develop resource materials available online. “We provide background information to help communities develop their own trails as best as possible,” added Ciabotti. “We can’t physically be in the 1200+ communities that are currently developing a project. So we try to provide them with as much professional information, assistance and support as possible.” The organization works hard to provide training/education, research, and support materials through their web site, public workshops and presentations.
Still, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy does get directly involved in projects providing in-depth technical and planning assistance. “We are able to work in select communities on priority projects especially in densely populated urban areas. These projects offer a whole different set of issues concerning the development of urban trails that are unique in and of themselves and present challenges that require our direct assistance,” said Ciabotti.
Although the organization can’t lobby per se, it is a 501P3 non-profit organization or public charity, it does have a general counsel who provides technical assistance and strategic guidance for local communities trying to acquire a rail corridor. “In some cases, there are some situations where there are legal issues that arise as to the ownership of a corridor, when a particular corridor is reverting back to adjacent land ownership or whether it stays as part of the national rail system. Often times our general counsel is asked to weigh in on this and to get involved in local cases that could have a national impact on the body of law that regulates rail trail development,” said Ciabotti. This can involve the concept of railbanking, which is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency. It enables the use of a corridor as a rail-trail when it is out-of-service of the railroad until the railroad again needs the corridor for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased, or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent ownership. RTC also defends and promotes an important federal law called the railbanking statute which has been an integral tool in preserving our nation’s rail system. Railbanking is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency that preserves an unused rail line for future transportation use while in the interim being used as a public trail. According to Rails-to-Trails, railbanking has preserved more than 4,000 miles of rail corridor in 33 states. Moreover, there are more than 100 railbanked trails in the United States.

Rails-to-Trails also deals with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. “There are times when the BLM or the Forest Service will have an active or an unused rail corridor on their property, and they call us for assistance when they want to get a track into a trail,” said Ciabotti. “Luckily there is a lot of internal staff knowledge now at the BLM and the Forest Service and they are familiar enough with development of trails. They are both getting quite savvy about converting rails to trails.”

The BLM and Forest Service often have many miles of corridor within their boundaries and they consult with us to determine how best to use those resources for public trails. Some of the country’s most beautiful trails are on our national lands.

Our success is very dependent upon having solid partnerships at the national and local level. RTC participates on the board of American Trails and other like minded organizations that promote trails, biking, and walking,” said Ciabotti.

Also, Rails-to-Trails’ staff participate in other related organizations and coalitions. “We have a staff member who is on the board of American Trails and usually that is how we tie ourselves to other various groups, motorized and non-motorized,” said Ciabotti.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has about 100,000 members and supporters. Benefits of being a member include the group’s quarterly magazine, access to special merchandise through their website, and more.

Members can help the trails movement by assisting the organization financially, becoming advocates for trails, biking and walking, volunteering to maintain existing trails or joining a local “Friends of the Trail” group, and especially by getting out on the trails.

Anyone can become a member. “We have folks who are old railroad buffs who like to see the recycling of the nation’s railroad infrastructure into public use trails; we have people who are tourists who plan rail-trail trips and we have urban residents who use the trails to get to and from work and school kids to use the trails to get to and from school,” concluded Ciabotti. Members of RTC use trails for a wide variety of reasons. Some members are railroad buffs that want to see the corridors preserved, some use them as destinations for their family vacations, some for regular exercise to get healthier, some for commuting to work and school. What’s nice about rail-trails is that they can be different things to different people and all of those things are good.

For more information visit the organization’s website:

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