In a 7-2 decision rendered last week, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that a 600-mile pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina may proceed in accordance with easements granted by the National Forest Service to the pipeline company. The easement at issue gives the company a 0.1 mile right-of-way beneath a portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Environmental and conservationist groups sued to block the pipeline. They argued that the Forest Service had no authority to grant an easement because the Secretary of Interior had previously delegated its authority over the Trail to the National Park Service, which had the effect of making the Trail part of the National Park System. Under federal law, pipeline easements may not be granted through land in the National Park System.
Writing for the majority in United States Forest Service et al v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association et al (No. 18-1584), Justice Thomas opined that the Mineral Leasing Act applies and authorizes the National Forest Service to grant the easement. The Secretary of Interior’s delegation of management of the Trail to the National Park Service did not transfer the land itself to the Park Service. Moreover, the National Trails System Act, which established the Appalachian Trail, authorizes the Secretary to enter into right-of-way agreements with other federal agencies, states, and private landowners. Finally, an easement, with is a burden on land and not land itself, does not become “land” simply by virtue of the delegation of management from the Secretary to the NPS.
While the Court’s decision turned on an interpretation of the interaction of various federal laws governing public lands, Justice Thomas’s comments regarding federalism may signal how the Court may rule in two other pipeline cases currently awaiting decision. First, Justice Thomas reasons, if Congress had intended to transfer federal land from one agency to another, it would have said so. Second, Congress has not given the Secretary of Interior the express authority to expand the National Park System by delegation and so impede the National Forest Service’s right to grant easements for pipelines. Finally, if the environmental and conversationist groups’ argument is correct, the Secretary of Interior could also take land from states and private landowners merely by delegating management of the land to the National Park Service.