Pierce County: High court ruling should have minimal impact on Foothills Trail

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 26, 2014 

Pierce County issued a statement this week stating that it expecting a March 10 Supreme Court ruling to have only minimal impact on the Foothills Trail. The trail currently runs from Puyallup to South Prairie with plans to link to sections in Buckley, Wilkeson and other South Sound trails.


A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving trails built on former rail corridors will have minimal impact on the Foothills Trail, Pierce County officials believe.

After two weeks of reviewing the March 10 ruling determining that the federal government loses control of land previously granted to railroad companies, the county prepared a statement that says it doesn’t believe the Foothills Trail will be affected.

The county consulted deputy prosecuting attorney Pete Philley, parks and recreation staff, the Foothills Trail Coalition and others but says their statement is not a legal interpretation from the prosecutor’s office.  

The statement says attorneys representing the trails interpreted the court’s decision to mean existing trail projects will not be affected if they can meet one of six conditions.

The conditions, according to an interpretation by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy: 1, “Railbanked” (Set aside for potential future use as a railway); 2, the corridor was originally acquired by the railroad by a federally granted right-of-way through federal lands before 1875; 3, The railroad originally acquired the corridor from a private land owner; 4, The trail manager owns the adjacent land adjacent; 5, the trail manager owns full title of the corridor; or, 6, the corridor is in the original 13 colonies.

The Foothills Trail meets three of the conditions, according to the statement.

"1. The Foothills Trail is located on a rail corridor originally acquired by the Northern Pacific Railroad/Railway, which right of way was created by an Act of the U.S. Congress on July 2, 1862.  The Brandt Supreme Court Case decision does not apply to federally granted right-of-way acquired before 1875. (Meets condition #2)

2. Notwithstanding item 1, Pierce County has generally acquired nearly all its Foothills Trail property through fee simple purchase from property owners adjacent to the former rail right-of-way. (Meets condition #5)

3. For those sections where Pierce County did not purchase the trail property from property owners adjacent to the former rail right-of-way, we acquired the property using the “public highway exception” under United States Code 43-912 (railroad abandonment law) or the property was railbanked.  The public highway exception allowed the County to declare a portion of the former Northern Pacific Railroad/Railway to be a public highway through resolution of the Pierce County Council. (Meets condition #1)"

The Foothills Trail is a 15-mile section of paved multiuse trail stretching from Puyallup to South Prairie. Aspirations of the trail include connecting it to another section in Buckley, other South Sound Trails and expanding to Mount Rainier National Park.

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