On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association that the U.S. Forest Service was authorized to issue a special use permit granting a 0.1-mile right of way under the Appalachian Trail (“Trail”) to Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC (“Atlantic”) for a proposed underground natural gas pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline is 604 miles long and connects West Virginia to North Carolina. The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision overturned a ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the Forest Service did not have the authority to grant the special use permit and right-of-way. The 4th Circuit found the Appalachian Trail became part of the National Park System when the Secretary of the Interior delegated its authority over the Trail’s administration to the National Park Service, and the Mineral Leasing Act prohibits pipeline rights-of-way through lands in the National Park System. In overturning the 4th Circuit, the Supreme Court found that the Department of the Interior’s decision to assign responsibility over the Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the land over the Trail passes into land within the National Park System. Therefore, the Forest Service had the authority to issue the special use permit because administrative action by the Forest Service in making the transfer of the Trail could not alter Congressional action in creating the Trail in the first instance.
Developers of the Atlantic Coast pipeline argued that upholding the 4th Circuit’s ruling would prevent natural gas development on the east coast. During oral argument, several of the justices’ questions seemed to indicate a desire to find a practical solution to the problem that the transfer of the Trail to the Park Service created for Atlantic. Though this Supreme Court decision is a victory for Atlantic, Atlantic still faces an uphill battle to construct the pipeline as several more necessary approvals are currently tied up in litigation.