A step too far for the Appalachian Trail

Sep 4, 2019 by

Mount Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park, the northern most terminus of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

The Trump administration wants to allow a pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail on federal lands. Congress should say no.

Dominion Energy wants to run a massive pipeline across America’s treasured Appalachian National Scenic Trail and some of the least developed wildlands remaining in the East. This isn’t just a bad idea, it’s an unprecedented one. Dominion, the Virginia-based power giant that serves customers in 18 states, wants to do something that has never been done in the half century since the iconic hiking path was enshrined in law: force a pipeline across the Appalachian Trail on federal land managed by the Forest Service.

To get its way, the company must persuade lawmakers to overturn a federal court decision and change a law that has protected important parts of the trail for almost 50 years. Congress should say no.

The conservation of the American landscape is a deeply patriotic tradition to which I have dedicated my life. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where my experiences along the Appalachian Trail and in the Blue Ridge Mountains fostered my love of the outdoors and my career in conservation. I climbed every mountain within sight of my home and fished every river. From 2009 to 2017, I served as director of the National Park Service, capping 40 years at the agency working to ensure—as Congress required when it passed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916—that our national parks remain “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The Appalachian Trail has been one of the jewels of our national park system since its creation in 1968. Every year, it draws millions of visitors, offering the opportunity to explore scenery and solitude from Georgia to Maine. Lands adjacent to the trail also provide important habitat for wildlife and plants. Like the creation of the trail itself, conservation has traditionally transcended politics. As a nation, we have decided to set aside some areas as national parks or designated wilderness and establish an American vision of conservation that resonates around the world. The writer and historian Wallace Stegner called our national parks “absolutely American” and “the best idea we ever had.”

But that bipartisan idea is now under threat from an administration working aggressively to undo legal protections for our public lands. One of those threats is Dominion’s irresponsible route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a pipeline that would carve its way across the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway and two national forests.

To be sure, many roads, powerlines and even pipelines already cross the trail along its 2,190-mile route, which winds its way across private, state and federal land. But as I and other trail hikers know, the national parks and forests where the trail runs are special. Their mountain vistas offer some of the most scenic and undeveloped wildland hiking in the East. Dominion’s pipeline would permanently affect the trail experience on these protected federal lands, carving up a largely forested mountain landscape with a cleared right-of-way the width of a multi-lane highway.

To achieve its goal, Dominion has courted Trump appointees eager to promote the administration’s energy-at-any-cost agenda. Two years ago, it looked like Dominion might get its way. In January 2018, the Forest Service gave the company a permit to cross the Appalachian Trail on national forest land, but a coalition of conservation groups quickly challenged the decision in federal court. Eleven months later, the court concluded that, under federal law, the Forest Service did not have legal authority to allow the crossing and invalidated the permit. Dominion wants to overturn this court decision in Congress.

The court relied on a federal law known as the Mineral Leasing Act, which since 1973 has prohibited oil and gas pipelines from crossing all units of the national park system, including Appalachian Trail segments on federal land. Almost five decades ago, Congress understood that pipelines presented extraordinary risks—including the effects of heavy construction, spills and explosions—that have no place alongside the natural beauty that our park system protects.

Dominion wants lawmakers to upend that protection, changing the law to allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross the trail on national forest land. Congress should not roll back this longstanding protection for the Appalachian Trail on federal lands. Dominion has other options to cross the trail, and it must work with property owners, local communities and state and federal agencies to find an alternative route that will protect the trail’s integrity.

America’s national park system is truly magnificent, a testament to our best instincts and aspirations as a nation, and it deserves the full protection that Congress has afforded it.

Jonathan Jarvis served as the 18th director of the National Park Service from 2009 to 2017.

Authors:
Jonathan Jarvis

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