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.
The 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 Wildlife.
“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 bed permanently.”
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.
"The U.S. Forest Service did the right thing by stopping Arch Coal's expansion plans in Colorado," said Roger Singer, Sierra Club senior organizing representative in Colorado. "By keeping dirty coal in the ground where it belongs, Coloradans can breathe cleaner air, drink cleaner water and enjoy hunting, fishing and recreation in our national forests."
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.”