Rio Grande National Forest Response to Continental Divide National Scenic Trail Corridor Issues

Rio Grande National Forest response to the request of clarification on Supreme Court ruling USFS vs. Cowpasture River Preservation Association and its relationship to Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) corridor issues.

Forest Service
Rio Grand National Forest
1803 West Highway 160
Monte Vista, CO 81144

Dear Mr. Riggle:

This responds to your letter dated March 10, 2021, regarding the 2020 Supreme Court decision involving the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (ANST), United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, 140 S. Ct. 1837 (2020). The decision clarifies the role of the National Park Service as the administrator of the ANST and the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a trail managing agency for the ANST, i.e., a federal agency with jurisdiction over some of the federal lands traversed by the ANST.

I would like to clarify two points made in your letter. Paragraph 2 of the letter states (emphasis in original):

The US Supreme Court addressed the management relationship of the National Trails System Act and the Multiple Use mandate of the US Forest Service for the corridors around NTSA routes and the designated trail itself. . . . The Supreme Court clearly stated the mere designation of any route under the National Trails System Act does not alter the multiple use mandate of the agencies managing this land.

Paragraph 3 of the letter states:

The Court ruling provides significant protection for continued multiple use access to public lands and prohibits many of the proposed closures of the trail and adjacent areas to multiple usage recreation.

The Cowpasture decision holds that a national trail is most akin to right-of-way over land and as such does not change the jurisdiction of the underlying land. Therefore, the legal authorities governing federal lands managed by a national trail administrator do not apply to federal lands crossed by a national trail that are managed by another federal agency. Federal lands underlying a national trail that are not managed by the trail administering agency are subject to the legal authorities of the federal agency with jurisdiction over the underlying lands. With respect to the ANST, where the trail traverses National Forest System lands, those lands are subject to the legal authorities that apply to the USFS, not to the legal authorities that apply to the National Park Service.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Cowpasture does not address the multiple-use mandate of the USFS under the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act in the context of national scenic trails designated under the National Trails System Act (NTSA). The decision also does not address multiple-use access to National Forest System lands or prohibit closure of the ANST and adjacent lands to multiple-use recreation. Rather, the decision holds that National Forest System lands traversed by the ANST remain under the jurisdiction of the USFS and are not part of the National Park System.

As outlined above, the facts of the Supreme Court Cowpasture decision are materially distinct from the management scheme present on the Rio Grande National Forest and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST). The USFS is both the designated administrator of the CDNST and the underlying land managing agency of the land traversed by the CDNST within the Rio Grande National Forest. Management of the CDNST within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest is governed by the 2020 Rio Grande National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, the comprehensive plan for the CDNST, and all applicable law, including but not limited to the NTSA, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Forest Service’s travel management rule.

I look forward to continuing to work with the Colorado Snowmobile Association, the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition, and the Trails Preservation Alliance—as well as many other partners—to provide outdoor recreation opportunities to the thousands of visitors to the Rio Grande National Forest each year.

Dan Dallas
Forest Supervisor