Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court rightfully put a decisive end to a bit of mischief that, if let stand, environmentalists would have used to hobble any number of projects.
At issue was whether national scenic trails operated by the National Park Service, running over easements granted by the Forest Service, offer an inviolable impediment subjecting projects on land containing a trail to strict regulations. In a 7-2 opinion, the court said no.
The case had its origins in the East, where three energy companies proposed building a 600-mile natural gas pipeline from Harrison County, W.Va., to Robison County, N.C. Part of the proposed route would take the pipeline through the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and under a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Environmentalists cried foul. Although pipelines and other infrastructure can be permitted on Forest Service ground, federal law prohibits pipelines from being built on National Park Service lands. The trail, operated as part of the National Park System, sits on an easement granted by the Forest Service.
They filed suit on a number of procedural grounds, and argued the Appalachian Trail was park land that could not be crossed. Their arguments were upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But in a 7-2 opinion, written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court has ruled the 4th Circuit incorrectly determined the Forest Service lost jurisdiction over the pipeline crossing by granting the National Park Service an easement for the trail.
“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,” Thomas said.
“If a rancher granted a neighbor an easement across his land for a horse trail, no one would think that the rancher had conveyed ownership over that land,” Thomas said. “Nor would anyone think that the rancher had ceded his own right to use his land in other ways, including by running a water line underneath the trail that connects to his house.”
Had the court sided with environmentalists, the ruling would have stymied projects along more than 38,000 miles of trails crossing 60 different national forests, grasslands, scenic areas and management units. Instead of dealing just with the Forest Service, projects would have also faced the National Park Service’s more strict regulatory regime.
We appreciate Justice Thomas’ clear lesson on the nature of easements. We look forward to more common sense in the future.