Big Case for Famous Trail Hits the Supreme Court

Justices to rule on whether an oil pipeline can cross the Appalachian Trail in Virginia
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 24, 2020 9:55 AM CST
Trail vs. Pipeline: A Big Case Reaches Supreme Court
In this March 2018 photo, crews clear the route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Wintergreen, Va. Work is now stalled over a dispute involving the Appalachian Trail.   (Jay Westcott/The News & Advance via AP, File)

Arguments in a big environmental case were being heard at the Supreme Court on Monday, a dispute that pits builders of an oil pipeline versus supporters of the Appalachian Trail. We won't get a decision for months, but the ruling has the potential to snarl not just the construction of this particular pipeline but others as well. Coverage:

  • The pipeline: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is supposed to carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia to customers in Virginia and North Carolina, explains NPR. However, construction has been stalled for about a year in Virginia thanks to various legal challenges, with the Appalachian Trail issue being the most significant.
  • The issue: The 600-mile pipeline is supposed to go underneath the AT near Charlottesville, Va., at a mountain ridge in the George Washington National Forest. The US Forest Service approved a construction permit, but environmentalists sued, pointing out that the AT (which runs from Maine to Georgia) is actually an entity of the National Park Service. A federal appeals court tossed the construction permit, ruling that no federal agency could grant such a right of way on national park land, reports Fox Business. Only Congress has that right.

  • The complaints: Yes, the pipeline would go under the trail, but workers would clear trees along a 50-foot path for it in the surrounding landscape. "It will be very visible," a board member for the Virginia Wilderness Committee, one of the plaintiffs, tells the Washington Post. "It's hard to separate the Appalachian Trail from the scenic beauty that hikers come here to see." The Southern Environmental Law Center is leading the legal opposition.
  • No opposition here: It may be surprising to learn that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail, isn't opposed to the pipeline. It decided not to take a position either way. The 2,200-mile trail runs through federal, state, and even private land, and the conservancy is concerned that this case could upset the delicate balance needed to run the trail, per NPR. One of its officials notes that the ridge where the pipe would go is close to the Blue Ridge Parkway; while cars aren't visible, they can be heard from that spot. In other words, this isn't exactly an undisturbed place. "The reality is ... the Blue Ridge Parkway is here, people's homes are here, this is part of the society we live in," the official says.
  • An opponent: In an op-ed in the New York Times, journalist and avid AT hiker Will Harlan notes that it's not just "tree-huggers" in opposition. Conservative rural landowners who would be forced to allow the pipeline on their property also are against it. Harlan also sees a bigger picture at play: "Ultimately, the collision between supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and those who want to protect the Appalachian Trail is a clash between two visions for our country: a fossil-fueled future, or a more sustainable economy based on renewables."
  • Impact: A ruling against the pipeline could affect other projects as well, if the AT is found to be an impenetrable line. A lawyer on behalf of the builders, including Dominion Energy, says "there is no basis in any federal statute to conclude that Congress intended to convert the Appalachian Trail into a 2,200-mile barrier separating critical natural resources from the Eastern Seaboard." The Trump administration backs the builders, who've already begun lobbying Congress for a special permit.
(More Appalachian Trail stories.)

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