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Lies, Damned Lies And Coal Company Biologists

Coal companies have been blasting mountains, dumping waste rock into streams, and undermining private and public lands for more than a century. It’s apparently lucrative to do so.

But a recent filing by a coal company shows just how far they have drunk their own Kool-Aid (or coal ash?) in justifying the damage mining can cause.

The filing concerned Earthjustice’s efforts to protect the Sunset Roadless Area on the GMUG National Forest in western Colorado. The Sunset area is a landscape of pine, fir, and aspen stands, dotted with wet meadows and beaver ponds.

It provides habitat for black bear and the imperiled lynx, elk and goshawk. And it’s darned pretty, with the peak of Mount Gunnison in the West Elk Wilderness looming to the east.

Sunset Trail Roadless Area.
(Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)

Mining giant Arch Coal hopes to bulldoze 6.5 miles of road and nearly 50 one-acre well pads in the Sunset Roadless Area to enable the corporation to mine about 10 million tons of coal. And as far as their biologist, a Mr. Monarch, is concerned, that’s just hunky dory.

Mr. Monarch has impeccable credentials for an industry-leaning biologist, having worked for over a decade for a coal company and for Chevron.

So it's not a surprise to read his statements that bulldozing a spiderweb of roads and well pads in a natural wonderland like the Sunset Roadless Area could “actually improve” habitat for the shy, imperiled lynx, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Nor should it be a surprise to learn from Mr. Monarch that there’s no problem with chainsawing 70 acres of forest in the roadless area. Here’s how he rationalized the destruction:

The present habitat in [the Sunset Roadless Area] is distinguished by mature/overmature trees/vegetation, including old aspen, oak, and spruce/fir … The current vegetation will soon experience extensive turnover by fire, continued disease or other die-off. Consequently, the habitat in and around the temporary roads and well pads will soon undergo clearing of the type produced by construction/reclamation regardless whether the [coal] lease modifications are approved.

Construction of methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, CO. View into West Elk Roadless Area and West Elk Wilderness.  (U.S. Forest Service)

Get that? According to Arch Coal’s biologist, it's no big deal to clearcut and bulldoze through pristine forest to erect industrial facilities—click here to see what Arch Coal's mine work near roadless lands looks like—because the trees, like all living things, are going to die someday anyway.

Coal mining is just a convenient—and profitable—way of helping them die a little faster. It’s a mercy killing really, euthanasia for the forest. Heck, the forest should be thanking us for getting rid of these “overmature” trees.

Of course this is bunk. The Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that the project would destroy lynx habitat such that it would take decades to recover.

There’s a huge and growing body of evidence about the harmful impacts of road construction and road use, much of it written by the Forest Service itself.

Even temporary road construction can damage streams, alter hydrology, spread invasive weeds, lead to road kill, fragment habitat, and cause wildlife such as elk to flee the area. Our road-free wilderness lands include forests that protect some of our most important drinking water supplies.

But why let facts get in the way of a self-serving story?