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Smokey Loves Coal, Not Forests

The Forest Service finally admitted it.

It took the agency two environmental assessment drafts and a draft and final environmental impact statement, but they admitted it.

The agency finally admitted that it would be “environmentally preferred” to protect the wildest, most pristine part of the Sunset roadless area in western Colorado from bulldozing for road construction and for scraping well pads to benefit Arch Coal, the nation’s second largest coal company.

The construction of a spider-web of industrial facilities that will take decades to heal will devastate that part of the roadless area the Forest Service itself concluded meets all of the criteria for designation as wilderness—the most protective designation on public lands.

But while the Forest Service concluded it was “environmentally preferred” to protect this remote natural area of ponds and streams, elk and black bear habitat, with its huge spruce and large stands of aspen, the agency also decided on August 10 to approve the most aggressive coal mine expansion for Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine, paving the way for the roadless area’s destruction.

(This decision came after Earthjustice, working with WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizens' Alliance, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife and others, got the Forest Service to throw out its original decision approving the mine expansion.)

In doing so, the Forest Service admitted something else: that Smokey Bear loves coal more than he loves doing what he knows is “environmentally preferred.”

What makes the Forest Service’s green-lighting bulldozing in the Sunset roadless area even more disappointing is that the “environmentally preferred” alternative would have permitted Arch Coal to get 95% of the coal it wanted from its proposal—19 million tons of coal out 20 million.

Bulldozing roads and well roads for that last 5% of coal it wanted will get the mine less than 75 more days of coal. All that for a mine that’s been operating for 30 years.

But 95% of everything Arch Coal wanted was not enough for Arch, and not enough for the Forest Service. Smokey had to give Arch 100% of what it wanted.

It would be convenient to blame just Smokey, but he had help.

Senator Mark Udall, Governor John Hickenlooper, and President Barack Obama all signed off on the destruction of the Sunset roadless area, supporting a watered-down, statewide “roadless rule” that undercut protection for millions of acres of roadless forest, and opened the door for King Coal to scrape the Sunset roadless area.

The Forest Service hasn’t always rolled over and played dead for every project that proposed to pave its natural wonders. In 1968, for example, the Forest Service stood up to highway boosters hoping to slash through Red Buffalo Pass near Dillon, Colorado for a little project called Interstate 70.

The Secretary of Agriculture eloquently said “hell no.”

"Through four decades, this Department has maintained that the National Forest Wilderness System should not be invaded—even for important purposes—if there is a feasible alternative. We have rejected the pleas of miners who would shatter the wilderness calm with the roar of helicopters because such use would make their work easier and more efficient.

We have used primitive equipment and travel methods in administering Wilderness when modern motorized equipment would have been more convenient. I have urged the Kennecott Copper Corporation to forego development of large copper deposits in favor of the priceless, yet intangible, national treasures of the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington. I have consistently resisted efforts to cut the heart out of the San Gorgonio Wilderness in California for a winter sports development.

We held then, and we hold now, that economics alone is not a sufficient basis for determining whether wilderness shall survive or die."

Someday, perhaps, the Forest Service may again show the wisdom and foresight it showed in 1968. We can always dream.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.