What happens when a massive $6 billion pipeline tries to cross an iconic footpath? In a modern-day David vs. Goliath showdown, the trail wins.

The pipeline was supposed to be a done deal.

Dominion Energy, one of the country’s largest utilities, already had all of the permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. They had even begun clearing its planned route, which stretches 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina.

Then, to everyone’s surprise,  they were stopped in their tracks last month by a narrow ribbon of trail.

The A.T. may have just saved the South from a 600-mile, $6 billion blunder—at least for now—and helped change the course of our energy future. How did it happen?

Dominion’s pipeline route travels for over 20 miles through Virginia’s George Washington National Forest and across the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). National forests have strict regulations regarding water quality and environmental impacts, but the U.S. Forest Service issued a special exemption permit—essentially allowing Dominion to break the Forest Service’s environmental rules and push the pipeline through the forest.

Then D.J. Gerken, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, realized that Dominion was relying on the Forest Service’s permit to cross the Appalachian Trail, too. The Appalachian Trail is a unit of the National Park Service—not the U.S. Forest Service. And pipelines are prohibited in national park units because of their danger for spills, leaks, and impacts to water and wildlife.

“Dominion was trying to use a Forest Service permit to cross a national park unit where pipelines are not allowed,” explained Gerken, who helped file SELC’s litigation against the pipeline.

The Fourth Circuit of Appeals unanimously agreed last month.

They ruled that the Forest Service permit was invalid and the pipeline could not cross the Appalachian Trail.

The court also ruled that Dominion had not properly conducted environmental assessments of the pipeline, and that Dominion had failed to consider alternative routes that did not cross public lands.

“Essentially, it sent Dominion back to the drawing board,” said Gerken. “The current route of the pipeline cannot proceed.”

The fight is far from over.

Dominion plans to appeal the decision. But this much is clear: a dirt path just halted one of the country’s biggest billion-dollar behemoths.

Had the Appalachian Trail not been there, had the early 20th century visionaries not dreamed it;  had decades of trail crews not built it and maintained it; had the National Park Service not stepped up to safeguard it; had hikers not supported it and trail towns not bolstered it; had the entire country not rallied around this iconic footpath, there would be a 600-mile scar slashed through Appalachia right now.

Instead, one of the most controversial and costly projects in recent history was stopped by a white-blazed path through the forest.

Sharing in this success are the thousands of volunteers who maintain the Appalachian Trail and the four million people who hike parts of it each year.

Already, the Appalachian Trail community has rallied against the pipeline—writing letters, contacting political leaders, and even staging tree sits for months at a time. The trail community’s voice will become increasingly important to the future of the pipeline and the entire region.

The Appalachian Trail’s pipeline-stopping victory also reflects the increasing political muscle of the outdoors. The Appalachian Trail has become more than a 2,189-mile footpath from Maine to Georgia. It is now an economic engine and a powerful political force.

For decades, fossil fuel industries like Dominion have called the shots, especially in Appalachia. Now, the outdoor industry is a political and  economic force to be reckoned with. In 2017, outdoor recreation accounted for nearly $900 billion in consumer spending and over 7.5 million direct jobs nationwide. That’s more than both the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. In Appalachia, the outdoor sector employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined.

The A.T.—and other scenic trails and outdoor opportunities like it—are the backbone of our regional economy.

They may be our best defense for protecting the future of Appalachia. Communities are reinventing themselves to attract hikers, mountain bikers, and climbers, and public lands are becoming economic support systems for small towns and entire states.

Increasingly, public lands have also become battlegrounds. Fossil fuel industries view public lands as resources to extract and exploit. Most Americans today view them as national treasures to be shared­ and safeguarded.

Ultimately, the collision between the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Appalachian Trail was a clash between two diverging visions for our region: a fracked, fossil-fueled future, or a more sustainable economy based on recreation and renewables.

“We already have pipelines in the South to meet our current and future energy needs,” said Gerken. “We should be investing in a renewable energy infrastructure instead of fracked-gas pipelines that leak, spill, and pollute our drinking water.”

In this country, we are at a junction: the route of the pipeline or the path through the forest. Changing course won’t be easy. But there is hope in these hills: a trail and its supporters stood their ground against fossil fuels’ dominion in Appalachia—and showed us another way forward.