Parks managers from Pierce and Thurston counties say it’s too soon to know what effect, if any, a ruling announced last week by the U.S. Supreme Court will have on popular South Sound multiuse trails.
On March 10, the Supreme Court sided with a Wyoming property owner in a dispute over a bicycle trail built on an old rail bed. The 8-1 ruling means the government might have to pay more than $100 million in compensation claims involving 10,000 properties in 30 states.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the government was wrong to assert that it owns the trail. The ruling states that government easements used for railroads expired when the railroads closed.
South Sound is home to several Rails-to-Trails projects, including the Foothills Trail between Puyallup and South Prairie and Thurston County’s Chehalis Western Trail and the Yelm-Tenino Trail.
“We have asked our Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to review the Supreme Court ruling to determine any possible impacts to the county’s Foothills Trail,” Pierce County parks director Tony Tipton said. “Until they complete their review, we can’t offer any specific comments as to the impact of the case to the Foothills Trail.”
Kerry Hibdon, parks manager for Thurston County, said, “We’re facing the great unknown.”
“We will certainly research it and determine what impact this has on the trails,” he said.
Ernie Bay, former president of the Foothills Rails-to-Trail Coalition, described the ruling as “a wallop.” Bay, who spent three decades working to make the Foothills Trail a reality, said he didn’t believe the decision would affect the trail because the county bought it from landowners.
Early in the movement to build the trail, some people believed they had missed an out by not taking over the railroad easements, he said.
“But, as it turns out, if that had been the case, we’d be in terribly deep,” Bay said.
The coalition’s goal is for the trail to reach from Mount Rainier National Park to Tacoma with an arm to Buckley, while also linking to other trail systems.
The Supreme Court ruled that property owner Marvin Brandt remains the owner of a 200-foot-wide trail that crosses his 83-acre parcel in southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. The trail once was the path of a railroad and is among thousands of miles of abandoned rail bed that have been converted to recreational trails.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.