Skip to main content
Defending Our Public Lands

Coal’s Toll on Colorado’s Forests

“What’s past is prologue,” William Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest.

In Colorado's Gunnison National Forest, that past has been written in the ground with bulldozers.

The Latest (4/12): The U.S. Forest Service ended its public comment period on proposed leases that would allow the bulldozing of forests in the Sunset Roadless Area to mine for coal. Thousands spoke out in favor of protecting the forests.

Recent photos by the U.S. Forest Service—obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Earthjustice on behalf of WildEarth Guardians—give graphic evidence of underground coal mining's impacts on landscapes that provide a home for black bear and elk, beaver and the elusive lynx.

Location map of Grand Mesa National Forest and Sunset Roadless Area in Colorado.
Gunnison National Forest and the Sunset Roadless Area are in western Colorado.
Flagging tape on an aspen in Colorado's Sunset Roadless Area identifies the location of a proposed coal exploration drilling pad. The forest visible in the photo will likely be bulldozed flat if the loophole is reopened.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
Flagging tape in the Sunset Roadless Area identifies the location of a proposed coal exploration drilling pad. The forest visible will likely be bulldozed if the loophole is reopened.

The coal may be underground, but a tight web of industrial facilities is built through our forests to vent methane gas—a potent climate pollutant—from the coal seams.

By proposing to reopen a loophole in Colorado’s Roadless Rule and attempting to reverse a ban on coal mine road construction won in court last year by Earthjustice and our allies (WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and High Country Conservation Advocates), the Forest Service has targeted Colorado's Sunset Roadless Area for about 50 more drill pads and more than six miles of roads.

It's a lose-lose-lose proposition: bad for wildlife, bad for those who enjoy national forests, and bad for our climate.

These photos show what the Forest Service has in store for pristine public lands—places that belong to you and me, and that should be protected for and enjoyed by future generations:

  • These and the following photos were taken adjacent to, or perhaps just inside, the Sunset Roadless Area.
    U.S. Forest Service Photo
    These and the following photos were taken adjacent to, or perhaps just inside, the Sunset Roadless Area.
  • These and the following photos were taken adjacent to, or perhaps just inside, the Sunset Roadless Area.
    U.S. Forest Service Photo
    These and the following photos were taken adjacent to, or perhaps just inside, the Sunset Roadless Area.

1 The coal may be underground, but a tight web of industrial facilities is built through our forests to vent methane gas—a potent climate pollutant—from the coal seams.

The process starts with the scraping of roadways through the forest, flattening terrain and denuding a swath of land of habitat value.

1 The process starts with the scraping of roadways through the forest, flattening terrain and denuding a swath of land of habitat value.

Photos documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
U.S. Forest Service Photo

2 Then, up to an acre of forest is leveled to clear a place to drill a hole from which methane can be vented.

Photos documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
U.S. Forest Service Photo

3 A drill rig is erected and operated. Bulldozers, backhoes, and a small cement mixer to provide casing for the drill hole crowd the pad.

Photos documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
U.S. Forest Service Photo
  • Pads pockmark the landscape west of the Sunset Roadless Area, seen here from the Deep Creek 'slump.'
    Photo Courtesy Of WildEarth Guardians
    Methane venting well pads already pockmark the landscape west of the Sunset Roadless Area, aiding in the mining of existing leases, June 2013.
  • Fall colors frame a beaver pond and lodge in the Sunset Roadless Area, September 2014.
    Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
    Fall colors frame a beaver pond and lodge in the Sunset Roadless Area, September 2014.

4 A mud pit is dug to store water to aid drilling. (The water is sucked from nearby creeks.)

This entire process requires dozens of truck trips, with diesel engines spewing pollution and making a racket that carries for miles—all in an area that previously heard only the lively quiet of songbird calls and wind-rustled aspens.

The road and pad remain for years.

Only after the methane—a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more damaging than CO2 in the short-term—is released, will the mine “reclaim” the area.

  • Photos documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
    U.S. Forest Service Photo
  • Photos documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
    U.S. Forest Service Photo

5 "Reclamation" involves recontouring the land, and throwing some seeds on the ground. A bare-dirt scar on the landscape is initially what remains. Invasive weeds can out-compete native vegetation, with toxic herbicides brought in to reduce infestations. It will be decades—if ever—before habitat similar to that that the Forest Service allowed to be cut down is restored.

It's a lose-lose-lose proposition: bad for wildlife, bad for those who enjoy national forests, and bad for our climate.

The photos above show what has already happened to parts of our national forests. They act as a prologue and a warning to what could also happen to the Sunset Roadless Area and nearby Flatiron and Pilot Knob Roadless Areas—19,000+ acres—if the Forest Service has its way.

Public lands belong to you and me—and should be protected for and enjoyed by future generations.

By proposing to reopen a loophole in Colorado’s Roadless Rule and attempting to reverse a ban on coal mine road construction won in court last year by Earthjustice and our allies (WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and High Country Conservation Advocates), the Forest Service has targeted Colorado's Sunset Roadless Area.

There is still time to stop the agency from doing more damage. Earlier this year, more than 150,000 members of the public told the Forest Service that they support protecting the pristine national forests of Colorado’s backcountry. You can add your voice:

Which do you think our public lands should look like?

[Move
bar ↔ sideways.]
An area of Colorado's North Fork Valley, 'reclaimed' after the forest had been bulldozed and scraped for methane venting well pads.
Hikers make their way through aspens in an area likely to be scraped for a drill pad in the Sunset Roadless Area, if the coal mining loophole is reinstated.
Left: Hikers make their way through aspens in an area likely to be scraped for a drill pad in the Sunset Roadless Area, if the coal mining loophole is reinstated. Right: Photo documenting underground coal mine road building obtained through FOIA request.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice (left)
U.S. Forest Service (right)
Left: Hikers make their way through aspens in the Sunset Roadless Area, June 2013, in an area likely to be scraped for a drill pad if the coal mining loophole is reinstated.
Right: A drill pad scraped by a coal mine in the North Fork Valley, after the Forest Service approved expansion of underground mining. An area of Colorado's North Fork Valley in the summer of 2015, after it had been 'reclaimed' following bulldozing and scraping for methane venting well pads.

Updated April 12, 2016. Originally published November 19, 2015.

Download these and other U.S. Forest Service photos taken in the summers of 2014 and 2015 that document the impacts of coal mine road construction.

See a timeline of legal and advocacy work on this issue.