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Protecting Colorado's Mountain Backcountry

Case Number # 2064

Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, are fighting to halt Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze, road, and drill the forests next to Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area as part the company’s plans to expand dirty energy development on public lands.

Beaver lodge in Sunset Trail Roadless Area. (Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)
Beaver lodge in Sunset Trail Roadless Area.
(Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice)
View photos of the Sunset Roadless Area.

In December of 2012, a Bureau of Land Management decision allowed Arch Coal to expand its West Elk mine in Gunnison County. As part of the mine expansion, the Bureau’s approval paves the way for Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of new roads, drill 48 natural gas drilling pads in 1,700 acres of roadless forest, and waste more than millions of cubic feet of methane daily.

The area slated to be roaded and drilled by Arch Coal provides habitat for the threatened lynx, supports the Sunset Trail, a backcountry hiking and horseback trail, and provides a valuable linkage between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lowland forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

The Bureau of Land Management’s decision follows an August 2012 Forest Service decision to “consent” to the destructive expansion on the Gunnison National Forest. The roadless area at stake includes forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows in an area used by hikers and hunters.

The BLM and Forest Service decisions to permit the mine expansion could turn the Sunset Roadless Area, which is right next to the scenic West Elk Wilderness, into an industrial zone of well pads and roads, with an average of 16 wells pads—and two miles of road—per square mile.

A spaghetti-web of roads and pock-marks of well pads for the existing West Elk mine adjacent to the expansion area can be easily seen on Google maps, and have been well documented by federal agencies and the conservation groups.

Construction of road and methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, Colorado. (U.S. Forest Service)
Construction of road and methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, CO. (U.S. Forest Service)
View more photos of methane venting impacts.

Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation. Rather than redirect its coal mining, Arch Coal has instead opted to drill wells above the mine and to vent the gas into the air. Methane is not only natural gas, a valuable and useful product, but also a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat trapping ability than carbon dioxide.

Data shows the amount of methane vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have refused to require Arch to capture, burn, or reduce any of the mine’s methane pollution, or to simply say enough to the wasteful and inefficient practice.

Earthjustice is representing conservation groups High Country Citizens’ Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, and the Sierra Club.

More Resources:

Press Releases

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Conservationists seek stay of Arch Coal mining plans to protect public lands, forests, habitat
Monday, December 31, 2012
Roadless area next to West Elk Wilderness would be decimated by bulldozing & scraping
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Roadless area next to West Elk Wilderness would be decimated by bulldozing of more than 6 miles of road, and scraping of nearly 50 well pads
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Conservationists challenge coal mining, bulldozing of more than 6 miles of road and scraping of nearly 50 well pads in roadless area next to West Elk Wilderness
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Decision protect wildlife habitat near West Elk Wilderness, forestalls pollution
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Decision comes days after court upholds National Roadless Protection Rule