AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a Supreme Court case and the group that feels caught between the two sides. If it's ever built, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run 600 miles and carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina and Virginia.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Between start and finish is a big physical barrier, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and what has become a potential legal barrier, the Appalachian Trail. Environmental groups who oppose the pipeline have challenged the legality of a Forest Service permit allowing the pipeline to cross the trail. The people who manage the trail say that challenge took them by surprise, and they warn a ruling in favor of those environmental groups could upend the trail's complicated management structure. NPR's Becky Sullivan explains.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Do you want to lead the way?
ANDREW DOWNS: Take a walk?
DOWNS: Yeah. Let's go this way.
SULLIVAN: Earlier this month, I came out to the spot on the trail where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline may one day cross. It's about an hour west of Charlottesville, right up on a mountain ridge in the George Washington National Forest. The trail is just a dirt footpath winding through trees that are all bare because it's February. From up here, you can see out into the valley to the north. I met Andrew Downs, a senior regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. That's the private organization that oversees the day-to-day management of the trail. It coordinates efforts between federal and state agencies and the boots-on-the-ground work of regional groups and volunteers.
So the orange - you think the orange flags are marking this...
DOWNS: It's about in the right area.
DOWNS: You know, I've been out here probably, you know, a dozen times.
SULLIVAN: As we're walking along the trail, Andrew Downs wants to make one thing clear - the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is not opposed to this pipeline. They don't support it, but they also don't oppose it.
DOWNS: But that's not to say that there aren't direct impacts from Atlantic Coast Pipeline to the Appalachian Trail; there are. You know, our analysis led us to the conclusion that the scope and range of those impacts did not rise to the - a level requiring opposition.
SULLIVAN: For one, the pipeline would cross under the trail, about 700 feet underground. It would enter and exit on private land, off the national forest. You would see a cleared pathway around the pipeline off in the distance. And if we were standing in true wilderness, Andrew Downs says, that might be cause for opposition. But standing on the trail here, it's not exactly wilderness we're looking at. The view is already dotted with what he calls impacts - houses, roads, fields - all sorts of things cutting through the trees below.
DOWNS: All the visual impacts that we see for the - you know, this kind of wilderness experience. The best way to do that is for all those things not to exist and this be a natural and forested landscape. But the reality is, you know, we're here. The Blue Ridge Parkway is here. People's homes are here. This is part of the society we live in.
SULLIVAN: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy runs on this kind of pragmatism. It's part of the deal when you're coordinating multiple federal and state agencies with the efforts of 30-plus regional clubs and thousands of volunteers. The conservancy has been doing this work for almost a century, so well before the Appalachian Trail was brought under federal management as part of the National Trail System in the 1960s. But they were not part of this litigation.
DOWNS: You know, what happens is people want to stop a pipeline oftentimes for good reasons, and they want to use every tool available to do that.
SULLIVAN: The question before the court centers around who is allowed to grant a permit for a pipeline like this on federal land. Because the pipeline would cross the trail in a national forest, the Forest Service granted a permit to the pipeline company. The Forest Service doesn't have the authority to grant a permit across a national park. And though the trail is managed day to day by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, it is technically a part of the National Park System.
Noah Sachs is a professor of environmental law at the University of Richmond. He's been watching this case.
NOAH SACHS: So if, in fact, the Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, then the Forest Service had no authority to authorize this tunneling underneath it for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
SULLIVAN: That's the argument an environmental group used to challenge the Forest Service permit. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and they revoked the permit. The pipeline company has appealed.
SACHS: So that's really the crux of the issue that's before the Supreme Court on Monday.
SULLIVAN: The issue of on-the-ground authority over the Appalachian Trail has never been questioned in this way before. Trail officials say this worries them because of the way they manage the trail. Because it crosses so many different kinds of lands - federal, state parks forest, even some privately owned land - the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has relied on decades of precedent policies and understanding in order to do its work.
It's not that it would all come crashing down tomorrow, but a Supreme Court ruling could potentially trigger a long bureaucratic process of reexamining and reestablishing many of the policies and procedures that have effectively been in place for more than 50 years. And that process could disrupt the trail's everyday management needs. Until her retirement last December, Rita Hennessy was the administrator of the National Trail System. That's the office within the Park Service that oversees these types of national trails. The Fourth Circuit's ruling in 2018 caught her by surprise.
RITA HENNESSY: The fact that it was identifying the Appalachian Trail corridor as part of the National Park Service, that's what was most surprising. That's not how we have managed the National Trail System for 50 years.
SULLIVAN: Hennessy told me she immediately worried about the domino effects. When I asked how a Supreme Court decision to uphold might affect the administration of the Appalachian Trail, Hennessy reeled off a series of policies that could be thrown into doubt - issues of environmental compliance, land management, acquiring lands, trail maintenance, volunteer use. You get the idea. She'll be watching the arguments Monday with some nervousness because any decision by the Supreme Court could change things for the trail.
HENNESSY: You know, having worked with national trails, you know, for my whole 30-year career and beyond that, it's something that's out there that is just looming. And we're not sure how it's going to be decided.
SULLIVAN: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says they are already seeing complications from the case. They say the Forest Service recently asked them to put on pause every trail maintenance project they had planned that would take place on national forest land this summer. The Forest Service declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation. The Southern Environmental Law Center is the environmental group leading the litigation. In response to trail officials' concerns, attorney D.J. Gerken says the question before the court is so narrow that it will not affect trail management.
DJ GERKEN: No one should worry that the outcome of this case is going to affect the cooperative management that has been part of the Appalachian Trail's success and should be going forward.
SULLIVAN: No matter how the court rules, it's not the end of the road for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or for the environmental groups who oppose it. The pipeline company is lobbying Congress for a special permit, and Gerken's group has won several other challenges to the pipeline that will still pose obstacles regardless of how this case turns out. For the trail, this is the big one. Andrew Downs with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
DOWNS: There are a lot of organizations who are focused on protecting the environment, litigating, like, you know, broad, focused environmental issues, and I applaud those folks. But there's only one organization in the whole world that's dedicated solely to the Appalachian Trail, and we have to make sure that our decision process reflects that level of focus because if it's not us that speak for the trail and only the trail, then no one else will.
SULLIVAN: Oral arguments for the case take place Monday. The court is expected to rule this summer. Becky Sullivan, NPR News.
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