Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Justices press government in Wyo. man's challenge to Forest Service rail trail

The Supreme Court struggled today with a Wyoming man's challenge to the Forest Service's construction of a bicycle trail across his property. Landowner Marvin Brandt argues that the Forest Service had no right to create the trail on an abandoned railroad right of way that bisects his 83 acres about 50 miles west of Laramie. Forest Service officials claim the government has a "reversionary interest" in the land after the railway was removed from a 200-foot-wide strip under the 1875 General Railroad Right of Way Act. Several justices appeared receptive to Brandt's arguments. Steven Lechner of the nonprofit Mountain States Legal Foundation, representing Brandt, focused his argument on the Supreme Court's 1942 ruling in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States. In that case, the court considered whether railroad companies were granted the mineral rights under rights of way. The court held that they didn't have mineral rights and characterized the rights of way as easements -- meaning the government-provided right to pass over otherwise private land. In that case, Lechner noted, the government explicitly asked the court to consider the rights of way as easements. Justice Elena Kagan, a member of the court's liberal wing, said the government "faces a problem" in now asking the court to reconsider that characterization. Consequently, Kagan indicated she understood why Brandt would think he now owns the land. "Why anybody would think they hadn't gotten the whole ball of wax is a mystery," Kagan said. The 21-mile trail runs along part of a 66-mile right of way that was once used by the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad Co. to carry gold and coal from Laramie to the Colorado line...more

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