By Christopher Cudworth
So, the Supreme Court of the United States just ruled on a case against bike trails on former railroad beds. The case could have devastating effects on new and existing bike trails across the nation.
Essentially, a family in Wyoming (population 576,000 or so) inherited some land within a Forest Service property that contained a former railroad bed. When the Forest Service tried to put an extension of a popular bike trail through, the family sued. They initially lost twice in lower courts before winning a Supreme Court ruling.
That really should not surprise anyone paying attention to the actions of the conservative-led Supreme Court the last decade or so. Our SCOTUS is politically motivated and hears primarily cases that fit the objectives of the conservative majority currently at the helm of our national justice system.
To give perspective to this recent ruling, here’s how screwed up the priorities are in this case:
“The plaintiffs in the Wyoming case, Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, are descendants of the owner of a sawmill that produced railroad ties. The family was granted dozens of acres of land in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest; they are resisting attempts to use part of that land for a trail.
“We traded for the land with a right of way on it for railroad uses,” Brandt said in December. “They want to bring a train through here, that’s fine. We never expected and we never agreed to a bicycle trail.”
Personal and impersonal rights
If you’ve been following along with the utterances of the Supreme Court the last few years, you know that they are really torn about the alignment of so-called personal rights with those issued to corporations, as people.
The Citizens United case essentially ruled that corporations are individuals in the sense that they cannot be impeded from making contributions to political campaigns because it infringes on their right to free speech. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney uttered the famous phrase “Corporations are people, my friend,” on grounds that because people run corporations, they are essentially the same thing.
Personal and political alignments
Now notice what the defendants in the recent ruling against bike trails have to say about their motives. “They want to bring a train through here, that’s fine. We never expected and we never agreed to a bicycle trail.”
So here we have a family that was granted rights to ownership in a federal plot of land. They feel they have the right to determine what use can be dictated on that property. And they prefer, as expressed in a very public statement, that a corporation that owns trains should have the right to punch through their property. Yetthey don’t want American citizens whose tax dollars pay for the maintenance and ownership of the public lands surrounding that property to have any access to the property they already own.
And that, my friends, is how screwed up our country has gotten. It’s not some liberal plot to jam bike trails through private property that’s causing this problem. It is the selfishly guarded aims of private citizens to dictate to society what our priorities should be.
The railroads were once granted carte blanche rights to shove rail lines through wherever they wanted. Railroads rim our rivers for grade access. They cut through cities and block traffic. And much of that is good, and needed access for rail lines. We might yet consider the benefits of high-speed rail.
Yet plenty of railroads went belly up, and that left thousands of miles of former railroad beds lying idle. So people got smart and put them to use.
Rails to Trails
The Rails-to-Trails movement has revolutionized American recreation. To keep this recent case in perspective, read this blog by the RailsToTrails organization. We’re not likely to face a whirlwind of litigation against bike trails. But that’s not the point here.
In our county alone, there are more than 160 miles of former railroad beds converted to bike trails. These are the most popular recreational resources in the Chicago region. Conversion of these trails has enhanced and protected large swaths of surrounding natural areas, leading to restoration efforts that have refurbished natural prairies, converted half-dead woodlands into thriving ecologies and provided access to both the public and private landowners, who otherwise would have had nothing but a cinder-topped gravel bed in their back yards.
So the conservative buzzkill here is that none of this matters in the recent Supreme Court ruling. What matters is a couple of yahoos out in Wyoming who would rather have a train running through their property than allow access to the general public. So private property rights granted on public lands trumps common use access? That’s screwy.
Not in my back yard
Here in Illinois battle such as there were fierce and prolonged. A visionary County Board and County Forest Preserve District Chairman named Philip Elfstrom was the guy who started building bike trails out of railroad beds. Miles of railroad beds along the scenic Fox River were rehabbed and paved over. The former industrial and trolley lines were perfect vantage points to ride along the river.
Yet when Elfstrom went to put bike paths through private property on the north end of the county, he ran into a buzz saw of objectors. One of them ultimately ran against Elfstrom who was deposed from office. Granted, he got a bit giddy and greedy with his objectives to the point of buying up entire houses along a section of river in an attempt to gain passageway for the bike path he wanted to install. The homes were in a depressed community so the price was cheap. That made it smack of a class warfare. Ironically, t was richer residents along the river who leveraged that story into “protection” of their own land along the river.
Which is funny in many respects. Since that time there have been many big homes built along the river in my Batavia home where the bike path transects the back of their property. No one has ever tried to sue to remove the bike trail before they build and move in. The trail is considered an “amenity” where it already exists. It actually raises property values all along the riverfront.
So the idea that bike trails are somehow an infringement of liberties is a load of crap. It’s just the conservative buzzkills who want to use cases like these to foment some strange sense of personal liberty that never really existed in America. If it did, why were railroads allowed eminent domain wherever they wanted to go?
It’s an ugly little comedy that the conservative-led Supreme Court seems so desperate to project on America. SCJ Antonin Scalia admits this is true, when he says, “There is nothing new in the realization that the Constitution sometimes insulates the criminality of a few in order to protect the privacy of us all.”
In other words, there is no justice for the public interest except that which is granted by the eternal wisdom of a conservative few, whose obsession with “protection of privacy” reaches even to criminality for reasons of approval. That seems to be a tarsnake of epic legal proportions.
Bike paths and running routes
It’s a very interesting juncture in America political history if you consider the ongoing clash between motorists and those who run and ride. If people who drive cars do not want cyclists or runners on the roads, then it seems to make sense that an extensive trail system should be constructed to provide safe recreational opportunities. Otherwise America just gets fatter and slower and more unhealthy, driving up health-care costs which undermines American productivity. Yet the Supreme Court would rather focus on the rights of two people in Wyoming than rule in favor of the common good of America.
And that really is a criminal act. One of many perpetrated on American by our conservative-led Supreme Court. It’s now become more obvious than ever that the crazed and angry ideals of a conservative few are a real threat to the health of our nation.
But all you have to do to understand the public benefit of an extensive bike trail system is visit the St. Louis region. There are hundreds of miles of genuinely great bike trails built there. These trails are wide enough to accommodate both recreational and serious cyclists. The trails are smooth asphalt and there is room even to swing wide of baby carriages and slow-moving grandpas. It’s a vision for the health of America that some people just don’t seem to get.
Some people just seem like they could not care less about the health of others. Bike trails? Who needs them when you’ve got ATVs or trucks or fast cars? That’s Real America.
But you can see the lack of concern for others in the selfish, short-term distaste for health care reform. A little short-term pain and adjustment is just too much for some people to take. They’d rather criticize than engage, to complain rather than produce new solutions.
It all goes together, you see. This idea that trying to make things better is not worth it is growing old in many quarters. Even Fox News had to ask the GOP hard questions about where their ideas for health care reform were hiding?
The point here is that it’s a pity when the supposed highest court in the land just doesn’t get it on something like a simple bike trail. The real criminal acts are those that fail to comprehend what’s good for society. And you can even ask Jesus about that if you like.