The U.S. Forest Service has full authority to allow natural gas pipelines to cross the Appalachian Trail, industry lawyers and the Trump administration told the Supreme Court in a pair of Dec. 2 legal filings.
Government and industry lawyers say a lower court got it wrong when it ruled that only the National Park Service can oversee development across the trail.
“Simply put, 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,” lawyers for Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC told the court in a brief.
The case, set for oral argument before the justices in February, controls the fate of the $7.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It could have broader ramifications for infrastructure projects across the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia and crosses nearly 1,000 miles of national forestland along the way.
When Congress established the trail, it put the Interior Department’s National Park Service in charge of managing it. Environmental groups opposed to the Atlantic Coast pipeline say the Forest Service—which is housed in the Department of Agriculture—overstepped when it granted a right-of-way under the Mineral Leasing Act for the project to cross beneath the trail in Virginia.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with the challengers.
Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco argued that the Fourth Circuit misunderstood the National Trails System Act, which established a management system for national trails.
The law puts the Appalachian Trail itself into the National Park System, but doesn’t change the management of the adjacent lands, the government’s brief says.
Congress would not have tucked in “a sweeping prohibition against pipeline rights-of-ways under the Mineral Leasing Act for all federally owned land crossed by the roughly 2000-mile-long Appalachian Trail” without being explicit about it, the brief says.
Environmental groups opposed to the pipeline have until Jan. 15 to respond to the briefs. Oral argument is set for Feb. 24.
The case is U.S. Forest Serv. v. Cowpasture River Pres. Ass’n, U.S., No. 18-1584, briefs filed 12/2/19.