The U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 that the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to grant right of way access under the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest.
The decision comes several months after the court listened to oral arguments regarding the case, known as U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association (CRPA).
The case involved one section of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, an US$8 billion, 2200 mile (3541 km) pipeline intended to transmit gas from the Marcellus Shale region south and east into Virginia and North Carolina.
Part of the proposed route passes under the Appalachian Trail, which is part of the National Park System. The U.S. Forest Service, which maintains the trail, approved a permit to allow the pipeline to pass 600 ft. (183 m) below the trail at one point.
The CRPA sued, arguing that only the National Park Service, operating under the auspices of the National Trails System Act, could issue such a permit on National Park land. In earlier legal action, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the CRPA, putting a temporary halt to the Atlantic Coast pipeline construction. Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC appealed, which led a Feb. 24 hearing.
“We hold that the Trails Act did not transfer jurisdiction of the lands crossed by the Trail from the Forest Service to the Department of the Interior,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling. “It created a trail easement and gave the Department of the Interior the administrative responsibilities concomitant with administering the Trail as a trail. Accordingly, because the Department of the Interior had no jurisdiction over any lands, its delegation to the National Park Service did not convert the Trail into ‘lands in the National Park System.’ The Forest Service therefore retained the authority to grant Atlantic a pipeline right-of-way.”
Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. The two justices felt the trail cannot be separated from the underlying land. If the National Park Service administers the Appalachian Trail, then it also administers the lands that it crosses, which means pipeline rights-of-way cannot be granted.