By Sandra Marra, ATC President & CEO

Preserving the Trail’s Network of Protectors

February 24, 2020

Update July 5, 2020: Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced that they were canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.


The Appalachian Trail only exists because of a network of protectors. It is a system that must be preserved.

The Appalachian Trail is the world’s most famous footpath. Each year, over 3 million people walk some part of the Trail and over 3,000 intrepid hikers attempt to conquer its nearly 2,200-miles in one, continuous hike. The lands surrounding the Trail are home to millions of plant and animal species, comprise one of the nation’s most heavily trafficked wildlife migration routes, and act as a climate corridor — the A.T. landscape is one of the last and largest contiguous green spaces east of the Mississippi River.

In short: the Appalachian Trail is a conservation miracle made possible only through a unique, complex and multi-organization partnership.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), 31 trail maintaining clubs, local, state, and federal agencies, and several dozen communities along the Trail make up what is referred to as the “Cooperative Management System.” Confirmed by the National Trail System Act of 1968 (NTSA), this system relies on each partner’s areas of expertise — from building and maintaining trail to volunteer management to navigating governmental bureaucracies — to protect not only the Trail itself, but also the surrounding lands, rural communities, fragile ecosystems and outdoor experiences that have characterized the Trail for nearly a century. Without this system of collaboration in place, the A.T. would never have become the natural haven it is today.

All of this could change due to an upcoming Supreme Court decision.

Today, the Court heard opening arguments in the case of United States Forest Service, et al. v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, et al. The Cowpasture litigation was initially about stopping a pipeline that had been issued questionable permits by the Forest Service. The issue at hand today, however, is what authority each federal land manager and whether the Cooperative Management System — now approaching 100 years of successful Trail protection — must change.

The Cowpasture decision could have long-ranging impacts on how the Trail can be maintained and cared for, including a complete restructuring of the Cooperative Management System. Regardless of the final ruling, the ATC urges the Court to make a decision that ensures this vital system remains intact, and that pipelines and other infrastructure are permitted according to the true public interest and in a way that respects local communities, wildlife habitat and the natural scenic values that made the A.T. and its surrounding landscape worthy of Congressional protection.

There are many organizations whose core missions are to protect the greater environment, but there is only one organization — in the world — dedicated solely to protecting the A.T. Since its creation in 1925, the ATC’s singular responsibility has been the protection and enhancement of the Trail, ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage is protected forever and for all. But we cannot accomplish this alone — in order for the ATC to meet this audacious goal, it is imperative that all of our partners in the Cooperative Management System are recognized and allowed to work together.

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us about this case and its impacts to the A.T. As the case moves forward, we will continue to provide updates as they become available.

Header image courtesy of Brent McGuirt Photography.