U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Protects Forest Service Jurisdiction Over National Forest System Lands
The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) applauded U.S. Supreme Court’s Cowpasture opinion relating to the construction of a pipeline on federal lands. AFRC joined 16 forestry associations in filing an amicus brief in the Court last December, urging Justices to reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision due to the case’s potential implications to active forest management on U.S. Forest Service lands across the United States. These groups previously urged the Court to take the case in an earlier filing.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether the Forest Service had the authority to grant rights-of-way permitting under the Mineral Leasing Act through lands traversed by the Appalachian Trail within national forests. In 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia vacated the permit, reasoning the Trail fell within the jurisdiction of the National Park System, even though it is located on National Forest System lands that operate under different laws and management guidelines.
“The Fourth Circuit effectively removed the Trail footprint from the George Washington National Forest and transferred it to the National Park Service,” said AFRC Legal Counsel Lawson Fite, who attended oral arguments in the case last February. “If the ruling was upheld, vast swaths of the National Forest System could be instantly transferred to the Park System, and would no longer be subject to Forest Service direction and authorities. This is particularly concerning at a time when there is a forest health crisis and the need for more active management is broadly recognized on these National Forest System lands.”
In their amicus brief, AFRC and the forestry coalition indicated there are 60 National Forest System units that were potentially affected by the case since they are transected by trails administered by the Secretary of the Interior. Fifteen of these trails stretch almost 38,000 miles across 32 states. Fite said the case had troubling implications throughout the country where trails administered by the Department of the Interior cross Forest Service land. Today’s opinion, written by Justice Thomas and joined by seven of the nine Justices, avoids those consequences. It also puts guardrails on future litigation by holding that Congress will use “unequivocal and direct language” if it wants to transfer land from one agency to another.
“The ruling could have impeded the ability of the Forest Service to grant rights of way, and it could have severely impacted needed forest management projects,” Fite said. “In some instances, the Forest Service could have been asked to create ‘buffers’ for trails that are not consistent with governing forest plans. By potentially transferring jurisdiction of substantial chunks of the National Forest System to the National Park System, the ruling could create additional obstacles to active management on national forests.”
“It’s estimated over 80 million acres of National Forest System lands are at risk of catastrophic wildfire and in need of treatments. There are already enough obstacles to restoring the health of our forests and protecting our communities. We thank the Supreme Court for declining to add yet another.”