The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the consolidated cases U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Assn. and Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC v. Cowpasture River Preservation Assn. addressing the U.S. Forest Service’s authority to issue authorization for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross beneath the Appalachian Trail. Reversing the Fourth Circuit’s December 2018 decision, the Court held that the Forest Service has authority under the Mineral Leasing Act to grant a right-of-way on lands within the George Washington National Forest owned by the Forest Service over which the trail crosses.
The Court’s ruling has been highly anticipated not only for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project but by state and national groups concerned with the implications that the Fourth Circuit’s opinion had for other pipeline projects, for state and private property rights, and for the existing agency roles in forest and trail management. The Court’s opinion analyzed the effect of multiple federal statutes including the National Trails System Act (NTSA) and whether it altered the ownership of the land underlying the trail. The Court notes that: “Sometimes a complicated regulatory scheme may cause us to miss the forest for the trees, but at bottom, these cases boil down to a simple proposition: A trail is a trail, and land is land.”
The Court found that the NTSA does not alter the underlying land ownership of the Appalachian Trail even where the Forest Service and the National Park Service had entered into a right-of-way agreement for the Trail. The Court held that the right-of-way agreement did not transfer ownership of the land beneath the Trail and that the Forest Service was therefore acting within its rights under the Mineral Leasing Act to grant a right-of-way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The Court relied on basic principles of property law and held that if Congress had intended to transfer land from one agency to another it would have done so using unequivocal language, citing to examples where Congress had explicitly done so.
The Court acknowledged that Respondents’ theory that the Trail itself cannot be separated from the land would have “striking implications” for federalism and private property rights by making such lands a unit of the National Park System. The Court found that the Forest Service had the authority to issue the permit, reversed the Fourth Circuit’s judgment on this issue and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan dissented, adopting Respondents’ view that the National Park System includes any area of land administered by the National Park Service and that the Appalachian Trail is land administered by the National Park Service.