Trail lovers are mourning the death earlier this month of David Burwell, co-founder of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
He succumbed to complications of acute myeloid leukemia on Feb. 1, 31 years to the day that he and co-founder Peter Harnik launched the nonprofit. He was 69.
Burwell and Harnik brought their idea of turning abandoned railroads into trails at a time when the railroad industry was consolidating in the 1980s. Many rail lines — some more than 100 years old — were found to be redundant or unnecessary and owners were selling them off piecemeal.
The nonprofit was created to make it easier for communities to turn these old rail beds into trails.
Bicyclists, equestrians, hikers and snowmobilers use these trails today for exercise, touring, commuting or errand-running.
The latest figures report 2,017 rail-trails are open to the public in all 50 states for more than 20,000 miles. Another 778 projects are underway.
As president of Rails-to-Trails for 15 years, Burwell helped states and communities to use these old rail beds as trails for recreation and alternative transportation.
Marianne Wesley Fowler, a friend and colleague of Burwell and RTC’s senior strategist for policy advocacy, told the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s blog:
“David helped convince Congress that the preservation of railroad corridors as trails fulfilled a transportation function. His efforts opened the Highway Trust Fund for our use. It was a miraculous accomplishment—one that has made all the difference. But his vision isn’t yet complete. He dreamed of a rail-trail that spanned the continent from coast to coast. Our challenge is to realize this, his greatest ambition, in his memory.”
Interestingly, Burwell’s mother probably sparked her son’s interest in trails. She helped create the 11-mile Shining Sea Bikeway on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.