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Protecting Colorado's Mountain Backcountry

A beaver lodge by the Sunset Trail. The trail is a valuable linkage between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lowland forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

A beaver lodge by the Sunset Trail. The trail is a valuable linkage between the West Elk Wilderness Area and lowland forests along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Photo by Ted Zukoski

What's at Stake

Earthjustice is fighting to halt coal mine expansions plans in Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area that will destroy pristine public lands and further lock the U.S. into dirty energy dependence.

Case Overview

Forests next to Colorado’s iconic West Elk Wilderness Area provide habitat for the threatened lynx, support 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.

In December of 2012, a Bureau of Land Management decision allowed Arch Coal to expand its West Elk mine in Gunnison County, paving the way for Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of new roads, drill 48 drilling pads in 1,700 acres of roadless forest, and waste millions of cubic feet of methane daily.

Mount Gunnison perched atop the Sunset Roadless Area.  The aspen forests to the right of the slump would be scarred by 6 miles of road and 50 methane drainage well pads if the lease expansion goes forward.
Mount Gunnison perched atop the Sunset Roadless Area. The aspen forests to the right of the slump would be scarred by 6 miles of road and 50 methane drainage well pads if the lease expansion goes forward.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice

Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, the coal seams are some of the gassiest in the nation. To get the coal safely, Arch Coal will drill wells above the mine to vent the methane 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.

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.

Earthjustice is fighting to halt Arch Coal’s plans to 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 per square mile. In November 2014, the lack of an appeal by federal agencies and Arch Coal finalized a judgment issued two months earlier that held that road construction for coal mines in roadless forest could not take place, unless and until, federal agencies first consider climate impacts and inform the public of that potential damage.

Case ID

2064

Attorneys

Related Features

Coal Mine To Emit Worst Greenhouse Gas

On Colorado’s western slope near the small town of Paonia, two of the world’s worst sources of global warming emissions are locked deep below roadless forest lands next to the West Elk Wilderness.

A Win For Roadless Forest, Climate

Earthjustice prevailed after four years of fighting to protect the roadless forest in western Colorado from a coal mine that would deal a double whammy of damage.

Why These Colorado Aspen Trees Should Quake

Autumn’s beauty was on full display in Colorado’s aspen forests late last month. So was the Obama administration’s schizophrenic approach to climate and public lands policy.

Case Updates

October 16, 2014 | Blog Post

Why These Colorado Aspen Trees Should Quake

Autumn’s beauty was on full display in Colorado’s aspen forests late last month. So was the Obama administration’s schizophrenic approach to climate and public lands policy.

July 14, 2014 | Blog Post

A Win For Roadless Forest, Climate

Earthjustice prevailed after four years of fighting to protect the roadless forest in western Colorado from a coal mine that would deal a double whammy of damage.

July 8, 2013 | In the News: Denver Business Journal

Bureau of Land Management OKs coal exploration in western Colorado

The federal Bureau of Land Management has approved an expansive coal exploration plan for ten new coal mines and the construction of access roads through previously undisturbed, natural lands rich with wildlife. The plan, submitted by a subsidiary of Arch Coal Inc., calls for the assembly of these mines at a site adjacent to the existing West Elk coal mine.

Gallery: Sunset Roadless Area

Frequented by hikers, the area includes forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows.

A beaver lodge in the Sunset Roadless Area, in September 2014.
Aspens.
A riot of lupines.
A pond.
A view from the Deep Creek 'slump' in the Sunset Roadless Area in June 2013. The landscape is already pock-marked with well pads.
Thicket of aspens.
A dusky grouse perches in an aspen, in the Sunset Roadless Area in September 2014.
Fall colors.

Photos by Ted Zukoski.