illustration by corey sebring


Just after Christmas last year, the Deerfield Wind Project became the first commercial wind farm to operate on national forest land in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. The field’s 15 turbines will power 14,000 homes and generate up to $7 million of payments to the towns of Readsboro and Searsburg — and accrue $6 million in tax revenue to the state over the life of the project. It’s a renewable energy installation with clear benefits, however, the towers are within the Appalachian Trail viewshed. While some may frown on the visual mark of the 400-foot towers and the environmental impact of its installation, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) New England regional director Hawk Metheny was concerned that the standard FAA-required strobe lights would flash near an overnight site on the A.T. and impact the Trail experience.

The ATC appealed the Forest Service’s permit of the project, and, at its urging, the federal agency agreed to require lighting that will flash only when radar detects an aircraft nearby. The appeal may have only tempered a portion of the project’s impact, but the outcome was a small win for protecting the values of the Appalachian Trail, and may set a precedent for wind tower projects on other public lands.

Yet energy infrastructure projects like the wind farm in Vermont — both large and small — are becoming more common throughout the A.T. landscape. “I have a sense that we’ll continue to see more energy infrastructure proposals,” says Metheny. “We’re starting to look ahead and prepare for appropriate ways to avoid or reduce impacts to the A.T.”

Indeed, according to the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, the U.S. will experience a significant transition in the development of energy infrastructure. In addition to an aged energy grid, economic forces coupled with climate change and new technology will have a broad impact on how the U.S. acquires and delivers energy. The future energy grid may include more wind turbines, solar fields, gas pipelines, and transmission lines whose installations may have consequences for the Trail. While there are plenty of benefits of a switch to cleaner forms of energy and a more efficient power grid, experts and Trail advocates are worried that decisions about future energy infrastructure projects may be made without understanding the full range of costs and the potential impact on natural resources.

“At the end of the month you usually get a bill. That’s one metric for the cost of electricity,” says Joshua Rhodes, a scholar at the Energy Institute. But, he adds, the full cost of acquiring and delivering electricity includes plenty of other externalities that may be difficult to quantify or anticipate, including environmental spillovers, such as air pollution, visual impacts, noise, and health and safety effects.

While the natural gas pipelines have lately been the center of attention, new and relatively cheaper power options — such as solar and wind — has created a completely new energy infrastructure landscape and with it, a different policy discussion. The anticipated transformation explains why the ATC is positioning itself to be more involved in shaping future policies related to energy production and delivery.

“Communities up and down the A.T. are grappling with the development of energy infrastructure,” says Lynn Davis, the ATC’s director of federal policy and legislation whose day-to-day work in Washington, D.C. is to help the organization navigate policy advocacy around complex energy issues. “It’s not something that we’re walking away from. We prefer to be in a position of working toward a solution.” Davis points out that the ATC is willing to work with energy companies, government, industry, and communities, but plans to weigh in on projects and policies to help guide decisions on future projects.

The proposal for the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) that will cross the A.T. in Southwestern Virginia is why the ATC adopted a pipeline crossing policy in 2015. The policy includes eight standards outlining the organization’s expectation for future projects, among them, that each pipeline minimize its impact through the Trail corridor and that the project must demonstrate a pressing public need. The ATC has also developed guidelines for wind energy projects and the ATC’s Stewardship Council is working on a solar sighting policy to give volunteers and staff guidance on when and how to comment on proposed installations.

This view from the A.T. on Palmerton Cliffs in Pennsylvania shows a pipeline, power line, and highway — and is an example of an area where infrastructure surrounds, and has the potential to impact, the Trail corridor.
Photo by Chris Gallaway/Horizonline Pictures

“Energy issues are incredibly complex. So, the more that we know and understand their impact the better,” says the ATC’s vice president of conservation and Trail programs, Laura Belleville. While the ATC has supported numerous infrastructure projects there may be cases, explains Belleville, where developments shouldn’t go forward due to their impact on the Trail and the surrounding landscape. For example, this was the case with the recently scrapped Northern Pass transmission line in New Hampshire that would have had a significant impact on the White Mountains. While the ATC did not outright oppose the project, it provided public comments that were in line with the organization’s guidelines that resulted in a siting alternative that minimized impact to the Trail.

The ATC’s pipeline crossing protocols may help guide energy companies on the least impactful ways to coexist with the A.T., but there are plenty of impacts that are difficult to predict.

For instance, pipelines routed over steep terrain have demonstrated that construction can lead to slope failures among an array of other scenic and environmental effects. Since pipelines are seldom angled across steep slopes to avoid potential damage from sliding soil and debris, pipeline routes follow a direct path up, which magnifies slope erosion problems and makes revegetation difficult. According to West Virginia resident Maury Johnson, who has been monitoring the expansion of a small pipeline on the Virginia-West Virginia line up the steep slope of Peters Mountain, what is being done to revegetate the site is not working. “What you see is a scarred mountain that will take decades to heal, if it ever does,” says Johnson who has been monitoring the site since its completion. In addition to the challenges of steep slope construction, the resulting impact of the pipeline on Peters Mountain may have been compounded by non-compliance to best practices, relaxed regulatory oversight, and a lack of regional infrastructure planning. Of course, the MVP presents similar hazards and risks, but its impact is on a far greater scale. Spearheaded by the EQT Corporation, the pipeline will carry fracked natural gas over 300 miles through Virginia and West Virginia, and run parallel to the Appalachian Trail for over 90 miles. The route, critics say, will have an unprecedented impact on the A.T.

In fact, clearing for the MVP has begun. According to Joby Timm, the supervisor of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, as of March 2, 2018, the pipeline had received permits from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin clearing land managed by the National Forest system. In June 2017, 11 standards in the Jefferson National Forest land management plan were amended to exempt the MVP. For example, the forest plan limits public utility right of ways to areas where “major impacts already exist” in order to contain infrastructure in established corridors. The amended plan would exempt the MVP from the requirement. Critics argue that the project has troubling public safety consequences too, since it crosses steep slopes and karst topography, a landscape that features sinkholes, caves, and underground water. The pipeline will also bisect the largest active seismic zone in the state where a rupture could damage property and imperil water quality.

Safety and water quality concerns aside, the corridor route will likely have a significant impact on the viewshed. In the future, the ATC hopes to anticipate the visual impact of energy infrastructure projects by developing an inventory of vistas throughout the Trail corridor and establishing a criteria for measuring scenic values. The National Park Service’s (NPS) “Enjoy the View!” is an inventory system developed by the NPS Air Resources Division to evaluate views within and beyond the boundaries of National Park units, including the Appalachian Trail, which is a unit of the NPS.

Strategy and Support
The sum of the short and long-term impacts — what are known as “cumulative environmental effects” — is what concerns central and southwest Virginia regional director Andrew Downs. He worries that the lack of regional infrastructure planning means that multiple pipelines may be delivering the same gas product to the same place, just along a different path. Imagine a college campus, he says, with no sidewalks. The system of spontaneously created pathways would likely serve each student’s self interest, but may result in a campus dense with footpaths everywhere. “That’s what we’re doing now. Each pipeline company is making their user-created trail,” he explains. “It’s really inefficient, costly, and unsafe. We want to see more thought put into the placement of infrastructure on a regional scale.”

While the ATC’s energy infrastructure policy guidance may help influence future projects, they need understanding and more support in Congress to have greater influence. That’s why the ATC has formed a caucus in the U.S. Congress to raise awareness and support for Trail corridor landscape issues and to advocate for legislation on issues that may have an impact. For example, the ATC has participated in crafting bipartisan federal legislation to address a number of concerns associated with the planning and regulatory process of pipeline projects. Known as the Pipeline Fairness and Transparency Act, the bipartisan bill was introduced by Republican U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith who represents a portion of southwestern Virginia. Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia have introduced similar legislation in the U.S. Senate. According to a press release from Griffith’s office, the bill addresses the protection of the A.T. and other national scenic trails as well as the public vetting and approval process by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission.

“We prefer to be in a position of working toward a solution.”

Another component of the legislation favored by the ATC is limiting the ability to amend national forest land management plans that are vetted by the public. Each national forest is required to have a land management plan that’s revised every 15 to 20 years. The plan is developed using the best available science and public input to create a strategy to manage each national forest’s resources over a two-decade period of time. For decades, the ATC and other trail organizations have developed standard language and prescriptions to manage the A.T. corridor, such as rigid viewshed protocols, wildlife habitat protections, and preservation norms for cultural and historic sites. National forest planning rules dictate that national trails should be managed to maintain their unique special character or purpose. That’s particularly meaningful to the A.T. since half of the Trail passes through national forest land on eight national forests from Georgia to New Hampshire, each managed by a unique land management plan.

In fact, the outcome of the Deerfield Wind Project in Vermont was influenced by the ATC’s position as a collaborator in the Green Mountain National Forest planning process. “We welcome being an important stakeholder — that’s what will uphold our standards and values,” says Metheny. “I encourage the public to understand how the decision-making process works and turn out to public hearings or be involved as a citizen.”

Both Metheny and Belleville suggest that involvement by the ATC’s members in shaping policy is more important than ever.

The lack of an overarching national energy policy, says Belleville, has created an opportunity for the ATC to work with a range of partners on crafting better policies in the future. But navigating the complex regulatory processes of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other agencies, or to anticipate the new wave of energy projects, has forced the ATC to rapidly adapt its approach.

“We’re going to see more energy projects that will have an impact on the Trail corridor. We need our members, volunteers, and supporters to engage with us as we advocate for meaningful policy development,” says Belleville who believes that stronger policies and more effective decision making processes can help limit the cumulative effects of future projects. “I understand why we’re developing new energy sources, but there may be better ways to build wind farms or pipelines. The ATC wants to be part of the discussion and develop a policy agenda that gives us a seat at the table.

For more information about ATC’s Energy Infrastructure Policy visit: