In 1985, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit organization, was established to convert abandoned railroad corridors into open spaces for public use. During the nineteenth century, the railroad industry in the United States boomed as rail companies rushed to acquire land and assemble the largest rail system in the world. By 1916, over 250,000 mi (402,000) of track had been laid across the country, connecting even the most remote towns to the rest of the nation. However, during the next few decades, the automobile drastically changed the way Americans live and travel.
With Henry Ford's introduction of mass production techniques, the automobile became affordable for nearly everyone, and industry shifted to trucking for much of its overland transportation . The invention and widespread use of airplanes had a significant impact on the railroad industry as well, and people began abandoning railroad transportation.
As a result of these developments, thousands of miles of rail corridors fell into disuse. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimates that over 3,000 mi (4,828 km) of track are abandoned each year. Since much of the track is in the public domain, Rails-to-Trails strives to find uses for the land that will benefit the public. Thus Rails-to-Trails works with citizen groups, public agencies, railroads, and other concerned parties to, according to the organization, "build a transcontinental trailway network that will preserve for the future our nation's spectacular railroad corridor system."
Some of the rails have been converted to trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing as well as wildlife habitats. By providing people with information about upcoming abandonments, assisting public and private agencies in the effort to gain control of those lands, sponsoring short-term land purchases, and working with Congress and other federal and state agencies to simplify the acquisition of abandoned railways, Rails-to-Trails has mobilized a powerful grassroots movement across the country. Today there are over 11,500 mi (18,506 km) of converted rails-to-trails.
Rails-to-Trails also sponsors an annual conference and other special meetings and publishes materials related to railway conservation . Its quarterly newsletter, Trailblazer, is sent to members and keeps them aware of rails-to-trails issues. Many books and pamphlets are available through the group, as are studies such as How to Get Involved with the Rails-to-Trails Movement and The Economic Benefits of Railsto-Trails Conversions to Local Economies. In addition, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy provides legal support and advice to local groups seeking to convert rails to trails.
[Linda M. Ross ]