Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Honors Peter Harnik as a Rail-Trail Champion

On Saturday evening, October 1, 2011, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) commemorated its 25th anniversary by recognizing individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the rail-trail movement during the past quarter century.

Among the honorees of the inaugural Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Award was Peter Harnik, whose name is inextricably linked with the history and success of RTC. He, along with friend and colleague David Burwell, founded the organization in 1986 with a mission to rejuvenate communities suffering with the decline of the railroad industry, and to preserve out-of-service rail corridors for the public benefit of all Americans.

Beginning in borrowed offices in downtown D.C., over brown-bag lunches Harnik and Burwell helped grow RTC into a nationwide nonprofit, and the idea of rail-trails into an integral, and much loved, part of the American recreation and transportation landscape. Their leadership inspired a movement that has led to more than 20,000 miles of rail-trail around the country. These pathways run the gamut of uses and styles—from dirt trails through pristine wilderness to paved pathways through our biggest cities—and are enjoyed by tens of millions of Americans every year.

“Without the vision of Harnik and Burwell all those years ago, our country would be a poorer place,” says RTC President Keith Laughlin. “These guys were building something from almost nothing, and it’s almost staggering to see where we are today—20,000 miles and counting—and consider where they started 25 years ago.”

A self-described “bicycle enthusiast and cockeyed optimist,” Harnik’s first introduction to rail-trails came during a failed quest to close Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., to automobiles. Still determined to build a landscape more open to cycling and walking, Harnik began researching Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail and the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin. His subse­quent article for Environmental Action magazine, “I’ve Been Walking on the Railroad,” in 1982, is one of the key treatises in the formation of a rail-trail movement in America.

“I’m pleased and humbled to receive this award,” says Harnik. “What the next generation of rail-trail builders has accomplished with this great organization and this movement is deeply rewarding to me—and a benefit to the whole country.”

A resident of Arlington, Virginia, Harnik also co-founded the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail. After 10 years as RTC program director and vice president for pro­grams, during which time he walked 137 different rail-trails, he left to become director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land. Harnik is also a long-time leader with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association

As a published author and speaker, Harnik continues to advocate for the benefits of trails and greenspace to modern communities. His latest book, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, features a chapter on rail-trails, and a photo of New York’s High Line graces the cover. Harnik is currently at work on a book blending rail-trails, railroads and bicycling.

At the Saturday award reception, held at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health, Harnik joined a diverse group of community leaders, volunteers, elected officials and municipal staff to be honored as Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood delivered the keynote address, and each honoree received a silver-plated railroad spike.

Thanks to the generous support of the Doppelt family, each Rail-Trail Champion will receive a $1,000 grant to be awarded to a nonprofit or volunteer trail organization in his or her honor. Harnik selected the Metro­politan Branch Trail (MBT) Committee of the Brook­land Neighborhood Civic Association. The MBT is one of the region’s most heavily used commuter and recreational trails, connecting neighborhoods to the north with downtown Washington,D.C. The Brookland Civic Association is working to build a strong culture of community ownership around the trail.

The 2011 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions represented 25 communities in 17 states across America. For a full list of the Rail-Trail Champions and their accomplishments, visit www.railstotrails.org.