`IT'S like turning back the pages of time,'' says Ann Meredith, describing hiking along the trails created on old railroad rights of way in Virginia and her home state of Maryland. ``Many of these trails, following as they did in many places the lowlands and stream banks, were perhaps corridors for early American pioneers as they moved ever westward. These same trails were later utilized and adapted to railroad beds and served in that capacity for more than a century,'' she says. ``Now these trails have again been utilized by a society that seeks stillness and solitude in heavily populated regions.''
More and more Americans like Ms. Meredith are enjoying recreational trails where earlier generations once rode the rails. The idea of developing linear parks along abandoned railroad rights of way has caught on across the country - almost as fast as the tracks spread over an expanding nation a century ago. These long, narrow corridors are perfect for hiking, and biking, and - in some areas - riding horses. In 1987, 10 million Americans used more than 2,400 miles of such trails in 31 states.
Linear parks offer users quiet, basic recreation and an opportunity to view a swath of prairie or other vegetation as it might have been decades ago. Today only about 140,000 miles of railroad tracks are still in operating condition and in use out of almost 300,000 miles of rails originally laid in the United States.
``Converting abandoned railroad corridors to public trails is not new,'' says Peggy Robinson, director of membership and development of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. ``Our oldest rail trail will be 21 years old this year. The Conservancy was formed in 1985 by a coalition of groups whose members ranged from trail enthusiasts to development and conservation groups,'' she says. ``This coalition brings together information to assist all groups that may be working to save the abandoned railroad rights of way for public use,'' says Ms. Robinson. It is funded primarily by private memberships and has more than 15,000 members.
These trails serve all facets of society. Senior citizens and people with disabilities find that the trails are ideal for their use also, since the grades are level - comfortable for walking and riding - as well as smooth and packed down.
``My husband and I love to ride our bicycles on the trails near Minneapolis,'' says Sue Nicholson of Plymouth, Minn. ``It's a chance to get away and be together. We enjoy the beauty of the many lakes, along with the wildlife and flowers, and the trails are so easy to ride on.''
But conversion of rail corridors from private to public use has not been without controversy. Some farmers and other adjacent landowners would like to develop these corridors for commercial uses. The original rights of acquisition ranged from outright purchase of the land to leases or purchase agreements that allowed the land to revert to the adjacent landowners should the line be abandoned. Lawsuits have been filed in attempts to acquire such land for public or private use.
Proposed federal legislation - the National Trails System Improvement Act of 1988 - would recapture federal interest in land no longer needed for a railroad. It would not be retroactive but would put in place a federal program to evaluate whether a corridor was appropriate for trails. If the land was usable for trails, work would proceed to convert the ownership. If not, it would be sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds placed in the Lands and Water Conservation Fund.
Lawsuits to prohibit rights of way being converted to trails have been filed by adjacent landowners who felt there would be a problem of littering, molestation of farm animals, an increase in crime, etc., from public use of the land. Experience has shown, however, that users of the trails are very conscious of the environment. Law enforcement agencies over the country note that they have had no increase in the crime rate in localities with rail trails.
In what has been the most publicized Midwest lawsuit to date, the courts found in favor of the state when Missouri sought to convert a 160-mile stretch of the MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Railroad along the Missouri River from St. Louis to Jefferson City to use as a scenic historical trail. The MKT roadbed parallels the Lewis and Clark expedition trail of 1803 along the Missouri River.
Converting roadbeds to trails can be expensive, depending on the work involved. The cost fall somewhere between $12,000 and $50,000 per mile, but once they are established, maintenance costs are minimal.
The longest trail is the 188-mile Milwaukee Road Corridor in Washington State, between Ellensburg and Tekoa. The most heavily used is the 44.5-mile Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park, between Arlington and Purcellville, Va., with 1 million users a year. For its length, the 12-mile Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle and King County, Washington, is perhaps the most heavily used trail, with 750,000 users per year. Other states with more than 100 miles of rail trails are Iowa, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
For further information on rails-to-trails corridors, send for a free copy of ``Sampler of America's Rail Trails'' and include $2 for postage and handling: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Suite 300-2; 1400 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.