TRUMP V. EARTH: Who Put The Appalachian Trail In The Way Of The Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

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Originally published on NRDC blog onEarth.
by Brian Palmer

The Trump administration undermines an historic trail, tries desperately to save just one coal-fired power plant, and sells out the endangered delta smelt.

Appalachian River, Cynthia Shahan
River in the Appalachians, Cynthia Shahan

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Take a Hike, Mr. President. No, Seriously.

What is the Appalachian Trail? This sounds like the answer to a Jeopardy question, but whether the trail is a national park has become a serious issue in the battle over the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, which would carry natural gas 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and possibly South Carolina. Along that route, the pipeline would come into contact with the Appalachian Trail.

Anyone not living under a rock knows the Appalachian Trail is an American treasure, covering more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Conceived in the early 1920s and completed in the depths of the Great Depression, the trail is intertwined with some of the most important events in our history. A hurricane damaged the just-finished path in 1938, just before the Second World War drained the country of the manpower needed to repair its greatest hiking trail. The full trail didn’t reopen until 1951, during the postwar boom. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law bringing the trail under federal control.

Top of Appalachians in North Carolina. Photo by Cynthia Shahan

But what kind of federal control? That is now the question. In a December ruling that put the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on hold, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the Appalachian Trail. If that’s true, the pipeline’s proposed route is likely unworkable, because the law requires the NPS to keep its lands “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Building a natural gas pipeline certainly seems incompatible with that mandate.

Diner in the Appalachians around the mountain from Cherokee. Photo by Cynthia Shahan

In an appeal filed this week, however, Trump administration lawyers argue that the Appalachian Trail is actually under the control of the Forest Service. The Forest Service is allowed to grant rights of way to energy projects on any lands not within the National Park System.

Rather than delve into reams of dusty legal history, I suggest we all take a step back and ask a simple question: How should we treat the Appalachian Trail? It has been a place where returning soldiers could gradually reintegrate themselves into society, where the disabled have accomplished amazing feats, and where great writers have gone for inspiration. The Appalachian Trail is obviously far more like a national park than the average plot of federal land. Even if the administration finds a footnote buried in a typewritten document from 1971 that suggests the trail is under the control of the Forest Service, it still deserves national park–level treatment.

Retweet If You Love Coal

President Trump promised to save the coal industry, and he sure is trying. He has tried subsidies, considered declaring a national emergency, and rescinded carbon emissions limits. But, much to Trump’s consternation, utilities keep bowing to economic reality and closing coal-fired power plants. Last year saw a near-record number of coal-burning facilities shutter.

What’s left for Trump to do? Tweet, of course. He’s now tweeting to save coal-fired power generating units, one at a time. There’s something hilarious about watching the president of the United States reduced to the same tactics as some random guy trying to stop Starbucks from closing the drive-through coffee shop on his commuting route.

There’s another depressing layer to this story. What Trump is trying to save isn’t just any coal-fired power plant, but one that has historically bought most of its coal from a mine owned by Bob Murray, the coal baron and cartoonish villain who has donated more than $1 million to support Trump’s campaign and inauguration (and whom John Oliver skewered mercilessly).

Trump’s tactic failed, as the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors ultimately decided to shut down the generator, which is the last coal-fired unit at its Paradise plant. Six of seven directors voted for the closure, including three of the four Trump appointees, who obeyed a law that requires TVA to provide power at the lowest possible cost. Because of falling demand and increased competition from cheaper energy sources, the coal-fired unit is regularly running below its capacity. When that happens, the end is usually near.

Here’s an idea, Mr. President. Rather than use your Twitter influence to prop up failing and outdated technology, how about actually helping the families who will suffer when the plant inevitably closes? Help them transition into the modern economy, and help their communities find a path into the future.

Go, Fish

Last week, President Trump formally nominated David Bernhardt to replace Ryan Zinke, the scandal-ridden former secretary of the interior. Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist for both the oil industry and massive agricultural interests. You’d think that he would strenuously avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest involving his old clients to maximize his chances of confirmation.

Sadly, he has done the opposite. In a story this week in The New York Times, Coral Davenport details how, just a few months after joining the Interior Department in 2017, Bernhardt began working to weaken federal protections for a pair of fish species, the delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon. Why did Bernhardt care so much about these fish? Perhaps because, as a lobbyist, he had represented farm interests that were peeved about rules preventing them from withdrawing more water from the complex of San Francisco Bay Area rivers where the fish reside.

One ethics expert Davenport interviewed called the situation “a clear case of violating the ethics code” and “not a gray area.”

This is the hallmark of Trump-ian ethics standards. Many administrations push the ethics envelope, looking for ways they can stretch the rules and make an argument in their defense. The Trump administration doesn’t care about the envelope or hiding its actions in ethical gray areas. It just shamelessly ignores the standards and assumes there will be no consequences. Too often, with the Republican-led Senate asleep at the ethics wheel, it’s right.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

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