By Evan Halper

Tribune Washington Bureau

ROANOKE, Va. — The stretch of Appalachian Trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains here is prized by hikers from around the world for its open ridgelines, spectacular geologic formations and challenging slopes.

But some of the country’s most iconic views could soon be changed forever to make room for an energy project favored not just by fossil fuel industry boosters like President Donald Trump, but also Virginia’s Democratic governor.

A natural gas developer with some powerful political allies is nearing final approval to plow a pipeline corridor as wide as 150 feet, tracking the trail for dozens of miles and burrowing through it at one point.

Amid the nation’s ongoing boom in natural gas production, federal rules have made pipeline construction an extremely lucrative enterprise, even in markets where the need is hotly debated.

To many, the Mountain Valley pipeline has become a symbol of the building frenzy. Concern stretches all the way to California, where climate activists worry that such projects are undermining their efforts. Leaders of the Pacific Crest Trail Association fear that gas companies feel increasingly emboldened to impose an ever bigger footprint on protected lands.

“Everybody, not only in the East, but around every national scenic trail, should be concerned about this,” said Andrew Downs, regional director with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the 90-year-old nonprofit organization entrusted by the National Park Service decades ago with the task of managing the trail. The conservancy has never found it necessary to get involved in a pipeline fight in this way, but times have changed. “We’ve never seen pipelines of this size and magnitude,” Downs said.

The conservancy is joined by preservationists deeply concerned that the pipeline route would cut through seven historic districts. Those include the picture-postcard village of Newport, a place where generations of families have picnicked by the 100-year-old covered bridge and gathered at the 164-year-old church in the center of town. The pipeline has pushed Newport onto the list of “most endangered historic places” compiled by the group Preservation Virginia.

The same glut of natural gas that helped the U.S. substantially cut its greenhouse gas emissions is now also threatening efforts to fight climate change. In communities being rattled by the rush to lay pipe, the natural gas projects are drawing the kind of rancor usually associated with more imposing and disruptive oil pipelines.

With some 9,000 new miles of pipeline in the planning stages nationwide, natural gas expansions are threatening to undermine greenhouse gas emission reduction goals already agreed to by Virginia and other states hosting the projects.

“Gas helped this country get off coal, but now deep decarbonization requires getting off gas,” said Michael Wara, an energy law scholar at Stanford University. “If we build all this gas capacity, we will have a strong incentive to use it for its useful life, which extends well into 21st century. That will blow our climate goals.”

The benefit the Mountain Valley pipeline would bring to those living along its 303-mile route is a point of intense disagreement, and opinion does not cut neatly along partisan lines. There are local tea party leaders and Trump enthusiasts who revile the plan, and die-hard Democrats who see it as salvation.

“With the reserves we have right now on the East Coast, we are able to bring that energy to homes and business at reduced rates,” said Natalie Cox, a pipeline spokeswoman. “The availability of natural gas typically attracts manufacturing facilities. It is good for businesses.” Company officials said advocates were exaggerating the negative impacts on the Appalachian Trail.

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