By Linda Picone
Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the Midwest was laced with rail lines, crucial as transportation for people and products from community to community and to the rest of the country. When automobiles took over the central transportation role, many of those smaller rail lines shut down and, in the mid-1960s, as the rails themselves were removed, the idea of rails to trails was born.
Today, several Midwestern states, including Minnesota, lead the nation in the number of former rail miles that have been converted to recreational trails (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota all have roughly 1,500 rail-to-trail miles each; Iowa and Ohio have roughly half that).
The Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota has been a critical factor in the conversion of several rail lines to recreational trails:
• The Parks & Trails Council, then known as the Minnesota Parks Foundation, donated money to bid on Soo Line land
that would become the Gateway Trail and helped convince the railroad to sell the land to the state, rather than to private property owners.
• When the Chicago and North Western Railway Company abandoned the 18 miles of railroad between Cannon Falls and Red Wing, the Parks & Trails Council raised $112,500 to buy the railway and remove the trestles to preserve it for recreational use.
• Th e Parks & Trails Council worked for five years to help acquire 3.13 miles of scenic Mississippi riverfront to connect
the Paul Bunyan State Trail to Crow Wing State Park.
It seems like a natural transition, one thatmakes sense on many levels, but converting rails to trails has not been without controversy. Dedicated advocates, both individuals and organizations, have been essential to the success of rails to trails in Minnesota.
“There’s been a tremendous political groundswell for these trails in Minnesota,” says Peter Seed, an attorney who has been involved with trails in Minnesota for many years. “I happen to personally believe that the off -road bicycle/pedestrian/rollerblade trails have really gained in popularity in this state and the popular demand for the trails has been a tremendous force.” Chuck Richardson, who has been involved in the development of the Cannon Valley Trail in southeastern Minnesota, attributes the growth of trails in the state to two things: Minnesota values and state residents interest in the outdoors. “Minnesotans like outdoor activity—especially after the long winters, we’re so anxious to get out,” Richardson says. “And it’s the old-time communitarian values of Minnesota. We’re going to do something that benefi ts the community and that will be available to the community at large.”
Rails to trails may seem like a logical, even economical way to encourage outdoor recreation, but conversions have not been without controversy. Terry McGaughey is known to some as “Mr. Paul Bunyan Trail” for his work initiating and lobbying for the 110-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail stretching from Crow Wing State Park in Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park north of Bemidji. “We had a few cities that were absolutely, adamantly opposed to it because of conflicting ideas about land use,” he says. “They didn’t want the land off the tax rolls, they didn’t want to see change in the way it was utilized.”
In one community, where the city council opposed converting the former rail line to a recreational trail, McGaughey and others proposing the trail got their information out and bided their time. The next election, a new city council invited the trail group to offi cially get support.
Seed, a long-time Parks & Trails Council board member, was involved in two crucial Minnesota Supreme Court cases that helped open the way for rail-to-trail conversions. Both cases affi rmed the railroad’s ability to allow land to be used for trails, once rail traffic had ceased.
Along the Gateway Trail (starting in St. Paul and going north 18 miles), the railroad company had easements on property along the way, allowing its tracks and operations. When the railroad stopped operating, property owners along the tracks wanted to take possession of that land.The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that recreational trails were consistent with the purpose of the original easement. “That was considered quite an astounding decision that we were able to persuade the court to take,” Seed says. “That was critical to being able to go forward with the Gateway Trail.”
The second case involved the Paul Bunyan Trail. Seed says the issue there was whether the railroad could sell the land to the state, or whether the land belonged to abutting property owners. The court ruled that the railroad had a “fee interest” in the land that gave it the capacity to convey the land to the state.
Although good leadership at the grass roots level was probably more important in the long run than the legal decisions, Seed says, “clearly, without the success of these two decisions, we would really have been stymied.”
Even in the face of opposition, converting rail lines to recreational trails is easier than trying to create a trail “from scratch.” The Gateway Trail is expected to extend to Taylor’s Falls but, Seed says, “It’s a terrible uphill battle because we no longer have a railway line to follow. We have to persuade individual property owners to allow easements.”
McGaughey says he thinks early negative reaction to converting rails to trails was based on a lack of information. “There hadn’t been enough experience with recreational trail conversions,” he says. “Th ere was a fear that trails would bring hoodlums and con artists into the neighborhood.”
Today, only a couple of decades after the first conversions, there’s a stronger than ever demand for trails, making it likely that more opportunities for rail-to-trail conversions will be discovered. Seed says he thinks of trails as linear parks, and hopes that we’ll treat them that way. “I’ve argued that, as a reality, trails are more popular than parks—and the usage statistics are starting to demonstrate that.”