“We trust the United States Forest Service to speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” said Virginia’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, quoting the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, in a ruling last week that blocked a proposed natural gas pipeline that would have crossed parts of two national forests, including sections of the Appalachian Trail.

The court took the U.S. Forest Service to task for approving the pipeline in the first place. The USFS granted a special-use permit to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s developer, Dominion Energy, to build a $7 billion, 605-mile-long natural gas pipeline snaking through six states from its origin in West Virginia, crossing into parts of Monongahela and George Washington national forests. The gas would be delivered from fracking fields in Pennsylvania.

In their unanimous decision, the justices said the Forest Service’s decision to approve the project was in direct violation of the National Forest Management and National Environmental Policy acts by inadequately proving that the pipeline’s construction and maintenance wouldn’t do undue harm to the local wildlife and topography.

“We trust the United States Forest Service to speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

To build the pipeline, Dominion Energy would have to clear woods and vegetation from a 125-foot path to make space for the pipeline, bury the pipeline in a deep trench, then permanently keep a 50-foot clearing above the pipeline for maintenance, for as long as the pipeline was in use. Presumably decades.

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The court was unsatisfied with the Forest Service’s belief that a project of that scale would pose little threat to the forests, wetlands, wildlife, and topography of the pipeline’s construction zone. The justices pointed out, in particularly direct language, that the Forest Service initially painted a “grim picture” of the effects the project would have on wildlife and the environment, but then changed its tune with apparently no new information and approved the project anyway.

“A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources,” said Judge Stephanie Thacker, who wrote the court’s opinion. “This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

Photo: Evelyn Mostrom

The Southern Environmental Law Center sued to halt the project on behalf of the Sierra Club, Virginia Wilderness Committee, and other environmental groups. Dominion’s “whole route is designed to cross the Appalachian Trail at this one location,” Patrick Hunter, an attorney with SELC, said. “That means this pipeline—as they’ve designed it—is not a viable project at this point. This pipeline is unnecessary and asking fracked gas customers to pay developers to blast this boondoggle through our public lands only adds insult to injury.”

In a ruling that stretched to over 60 pages and cited a number of environmental concerns, and questioned whether the Forest Service even has the authority to grant such a permit, the court pointed most effectively to a particularly damning portion of the Forest Service’s argument. The Forest Service highlighted the safety of the Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline, which runs through the Appalachian Mountains in a layout similar to what Dominion proposed for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. But, in a timely coincidence, the court noted: “Significantly, during the briefing of this case, a landslide in Marshall County, West Virginia, caused the Columbia pipeline—highlighted by the Forest Service for its safety and stability—to rupture and explode.”

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Top photo: National Park Service