Trail nix: The Dominion pipeline should not be allowed to cross the Appalachian Trail

The proposed pipeline crossing of the Appalachian Trail would occur at the Augusta/Nelson county line north of Reeds Gap and west of the Wintergreen Resort, near Three Ridges Overlook. Photo: Jack Looney The proposed pipeline crossing of the Appalachian Trail would occur at the Augusta/Nelson county line north of Reeds Gap and west of the Wintergreen Resort, near Three Ridges Overlook. Photo: Jack Looney
“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.”
—Jonathan Jarvis, National Park Service director, 2009-2107
By Jonathan Jarvis

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.

The proposed pipeline route would cross under the Appalachian Trail at the Nelson and Augusta county line, cutting through a wide swath of forest on National Park land.

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.

This story is reprinted by permission of Politico LLC. Copyright 2019 Politico LLC.

Editor’s note: As this magazine went to press, in late September, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, led by Dominion Energy, had been halted due to federal court rulings that voided permits for construction that would have harmed several endangered species and led the pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail between Augusta and Nelson counties. Dominion and its partners have undertaken a two-pronged effort to resume construction, petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, and lobbying federal legislators to change the law so Dominion can build the pipeline in its preferred location.

UPDATE 11:10am October 5: The Supreme Court agreed on Friday, October 4, to hear the appeal of a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond. That court’s decision revoked a permit by the U.S. Forest Service to allow the pipeline to be built beneath the Appalachian Trail at the Nelson and Augusta county line. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case early next year.

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

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