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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

Case Updates

May 11, 2016 | In the News: Politico

The Forest Service's Climate Change Failure

The agency faces historic costs due to climate change. So why is it opening up land for coal mining? An op-ed by Ted Zukoski, Staff Attorney in Earthjustice's Rocky Mountain Regional Office.

March 17, 2016 | Feature

Coal's Toll on Colorado's Forests

Photos by the Forest Service—obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request—give graphic evidence of underground coal mining's impacts on Colorado landscapes that provide a home for black bear and elk, beaver and the elusive lynx.

December 5, 2014 | Feature

Sunset Roadless: How A Win for Forests Became a Win for Climate

Colorado's Sunset Roadless Area is a place of immense beauty. But it was also in the crosshairs of fossil fuel development. A long-running battle was fought in court to defend the area. Find out how it happened in this photo essay.