Destructive Coal Mine Expansion in Colorado Roadless Forest Overturned
Decision Protects Wildlife Habitat Near West Elk Wilderness, Forestalls Pollution
CO — The
U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Denver yesterday overturned a decision
to approve a coal mine expansion that would destroy forest habitat for elk, lynx,
black bear, and other wildlife next to the West Elk Wilderness. The decision came in response to an
appeal filed by conservation groups late last year.
1,700-acre mine expansion would have set the stage for Arch Coal company to
build up to 48 well pads and 6.5 miles of road into pristine roadless lands
dotted with clear lakes and ponds, aspen stands, and beaver lodges. In addition, the decision would have
resulted in continued uncontrolled methane pollution from Arch’s West Elk coal
mine, one of the state’s single largest carbon polluters.
The appeal was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra
Club, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of
“This is a win for Colorado’s forests and wildlife, streams
and clean air,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Director for WildEarth
Guardians, one of the groups that challenged the decision. “The Forest Service should protect
these roadless lands and habitat by putting this damaging mine expansion plan to
The conservation groups challenged the mine expansion,
approved by the Montrose-based Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG)
National Forest, by filing a formal appeal to the Forest Service’s Rocky
Mountain Region in Denver. Yesterday,
the Region decided that the GMUG National Forest didn’t explain why it had
weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent
landslides. That failure violated
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Regional Office concluded, and
required vacating the GMUG’s approval.
Almost all of the proposed mine expansion is within the
Sunset Roadless Area, a pristine landscape of beaver ponds and aspen and
conifer forests that provides habitat for lynx, elk, and black bear adjacent to
the scenic West Elk Wilderness Area. The mine expansion would likely turn this
wild roadless area into an industrial zone of well pads and roads, with an
average of 18 wells pads—and two miles of road—per square mile.
The mine expansion was initially approved just days after a
decision by the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the 2001
National Roadless Rule, court action in which the Obama administration defended
that rule. The National Roadless Rule prohibits road construction on about 4
million acres of roadless forest in Colorado, including the Sunset Roadless
Area that Arch Coal would develop.
“It’s good news for Colorado’s forests that this destructive
proposal was sent back to square one,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice.
“The Forest Service should not have been trying to pave the way for an
incursion into roadless lands when a court recently upheld its authority to
protect those lands.”
Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, safe coal
mining in the North Fork Valley requires that methane venting wells be drilled
above the mine. The West Elk mine spews millions of cubic feet of methane
pollution every day. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat
trapping ability than carbon dioxide. Methane venting makes the West Elk coal
mine one of the single largest carbon polluters in Colorado.
“This coal mine expansion would have paved the way for
industrial development in a beautiful natural area, cost taxpayers millions in
potential royalties from methane that is wasted instead of captured, and caused
significant air pollution,” said Matt Reed, Public Lands Director of High
Country Citizens’ Alliance, based in Gunnison County. “We’re pleased that
Colorado’s forests, wildlife and clean air won this round.”
The conservation groups’ Dec. 30, 2011 appeal is available from
Ted Zukoski (303 996 9622).
Read the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region’s Feb. 13, 2012 appeal
of the Sunset Roadless Area (AKA the “Sunset Trail Roadless Areas”).
showing damage from the West Elk Mine’s existing methane wells.
Watch a video discussing the proposed