The next major endeavor for the director of SELC’s Virginia office hits close to home.
“As lawyers at SELC, we’re always rigorously objective, but at the same time, we live in the places that we work to protect, and I think that gives all of us a little extra fire and a little extra drive to do the work that we do,” says SELC Virginia Office Director Sarah Francisco. “So for me, the impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on the Shenandoah Valley and on the George Washington National Forest are much more than just a case we’re pursuing.”
Francisco grew up on a family farm in Virginia’s rural, historic Shenandoah Valley, nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Christmas trees are the family business, and Francisco would look out across rows of Christmas trees, pasture fields, and forests to the expanse of the Blue Ridge mountains. This month, she’ll be joining her fellow SELC attorneys headed to the Supreme Court of the United States to defend their victory in a court of appeals decision that helps keep an unnecessary, costly natural gas pipeline from carving through national forest and national park lands and one of the most protected landscapes in that mountain range.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,000-mile walking path from Georgia to Maine, drawing serious hikers from across the country—and even the world—who strive to hike its entire length and serving as a beloved destination for local hikers as well. The trail is a unit of the National Park System and, in Virginia, runs through the rugged lands of the George Washington National Forest.
The question at hand is: Does the U.S. Forest Service have the legal authority to allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline—proposed to run from West Virginia, through Virginia and the Appalachian Trail, and into North Carolina—to cross the trail on national forest lands?
SELC attorneys, representing five local conservation organizations, successfully argued that the Forest Service lacks such authority in a case decided by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now that the case, U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, is being appealed to the highest court in the nation, they’re prepared to make their argument again.
While this case is the most significant in Francisco’s tenure as director of SELC’s Virginia Office, Francisco has already notched critical victories for SELC, the environment, and the people who cherish and depend on it.
“One that is really exciting and means a lot to me is our success in convincing the U.S. Forest Service to protect the George Washington National Forest from gas drilling and fracking,” says the attorney. “It’s such a special forest, with beloved recreation areas and important drinking water supplies for local communities. It meant a lot to me to be able to work with our great local partners to help the Forest Service make the right decision to keep this beautiful forest safe from those threats.”
The five-year campaign that ended successfully in 2015 included working closely with partners, particularly the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, to bring information on the dangers of gas drilling and fracking to the local community and to make sure local citizens and local officials understood the process for making their views known and telling the Forest Service this national forest was no place for fracking rigs.