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Map of Sunset Roadless Area.

The Fight To Defend The Sunset Roadless Area — And Our Climate

  • Edward T. of Arvada, Colorado:“My wife and I are long-term residents of Colorado. This is our state, and we want it protected from exploitation. It is time for our government to do what is best for the nation and its citizens.”
  • Ann S. of Haxtun, Colorado:“Our family owns property adjacent to Gunnison National Forest. We hunt and recreate, farm and ranch. We treasure the wildlife and do not want anything there to do with coal whatsoever ...”
  • Ann S. of Haxtun, Colorado:“... We have solar and wind power—and want to see much more of it.”
  • Elizabeth F., Denver, Colorado:“We cannot create new wilderness. Please protect the wilderness areas we have!”
  • Gwen F. of Denver, Colorado:“This is not the 1800's and 1900's. There is new technology. There is wind and solar power, and it creates new jobs. Give up the old destructive ways of the past.”
  • Christina A., Longmont, Colorado:“There is no way to put a price or value on our roadless, wilderness areas. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. Nothing of value was ever achieved or preserved by greed.”
  • Susanna D. of Albuquerque, NM:“I am a frequent visitor to Colorado and know its pristine wilderness areas well. I am shocked to think of violating one of these beautiful areas for a few tons of dirty coal.”
  • Stephanie of Colorado:“I seek out secluded backcountry spots like these roadless forests. There, I am able to find peace and tranquility to recharge myself for the hectic daily life of an acute care nurse ...”
  • Stephanie of Colorado:“... These wild sanctuaries must be preserved, not sacrificed for the profits of corporations that accelerate the destruction of our precious planet.”
  • Matt F. of Goodrich, MI:“The need for energy cannot forever be a reason to pick away at our nation's ecological treasures ...”
  • Matt F. of Goodrich, MI:“... We will someday have to rely on renewable energy. It makes more sense to embrace that truth now and protect our roadless areas, before we have nothing left to protect.”
  • Richard G. of Colorado:“Almost 40 years ago, our family moved to Colorado to take advantage of the healthy environment and clean air. Another coal mine will cause serious degradation of these resources ...”
  • Richard G. of Colorado:“... It is incumbent on the Forest Service to protect not only the health of the forest but also of the people.”
  • Phaedra G. of Arroyo Hondo, NM:“We have to be responsible stewards of this planet, and the time is now.”
  • Robert C. of La Mesa, CA:“This is one of my favorite areas in the country, which I have been visiting for 40 years and know well ...”
  • Robert C. of La Mesa, CA:“... For the sake of the water, air, precious wildlife which belong to all Americans, not to scofflaw coal barons, please keep it roadless ...”
  • Robert C. of La Mesa, CA:“... Do your job and protect the area from polluters and from needless dinosaurs of outmoded technology.”
  • Bonnie O. of Denver, Colorado:“I moved here from Pittsburgh, where coal and oil were mined so much when I was a kid that the air was usually orange ...”
  • Bonnie O. of Denver, Colorado:“... So you might appreciate why I am writing about stopping pollution and land destruction.”

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Photo courtesy of Ecoflight

Mar. 3, 2020

In one of the first opportunities three years ago to push back against the devastating on-the-ground impacts the Trump administration's fossil fuel agenda, nearly 45,000 people across the country spoke up to save pristine roadless forests in Colorado from coal mining.

The U.S. Forest Service persisted in carving out an exception to Colorado’s roadless area protections in order to pave the way for expansion of a destructive coal mine. Earthjustice filed a legal challenge later that year, on behalf of five conservation groups.

Now, a federal appeals court has ruled the agency acted illegally, giving new hope for the protection of these wild lands — and for the climate.

Our Clients High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Wilderness Workshop

“This is a victory for the remarkable wild forests of the North Fork Valley,” explained Robin Cooley, the Earthjustice attorney who argued this case on behalf of our clients. “As a result of the ruling, the Forest Service must go back to the drawing board and consider whether to protect more of the Valley’s irreplaceable roadless forests.”

The Forest Service attempted to give Arch Coal, the nation's second largest coal company, the right to expand its mining into 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area — lands that belong to all Americans.

A rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests and beaver ponds, the Sunset Roadless Area is within Gunnison National Forest, 40 miles from Aspen, Colorado. The lush, wild forest is public land — prime habitat for goshawk, black bear, elk, cutthroat trout and the imperiled lynx, and enjoyed by hikers and recreationists visiting from near and far. Some of the spruce may be centuries old.

Sunset Roadless Area. Aspen and spruce.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
Sunset Roadless Area. Stands of spruce and aspen.
Sunset Roadless Area. Fall colors frame a beaver pond and lodge.
Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice
Sunset Roadless Area. Beaver pond and lodge, framed by autumn colors. See more photos

Arch Coal has repeatedly sought to mine this area. Legal and advocacy work over the past decade by Earthjustice, our partners and clients, and our supporters, has saved the Sunset Roadless Area from each of Arch Coal's attempts. (See timeline: The Long, Winding Road to Save The Sunset Roadless Area)

But with a fossil fuel-friendly administration, the Sunset Roadless Area — and the climate-polluting coal and methane gas under it — was again at risk.

Take Action: Defend Public Lands & Our Climate

The Long, Winding Road To Save The Sunset Roadless Area
January 12, 2001

The National Roadless Area Conservation Policy directive is issued, ending virtually all commercial logging and roadbuilding across 58 million acres of the wildest remaining undeveloped national forests lands.

The Roadless Rule is the direct result of a tremendous outpouring of public support. More than 600 public hearings were held around the nation, and the public provided more than 1.6 million comments on the Rule—more comments than any other Rule in the nation's history.

The Rule is immediately subjected to attacks. Earthjustice begins a decade-long legal battle to defend the Roadless Rule.

August 2007

The West Elk coal mine, near Paonia in Gunnison County, western Colorado, is identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the fourth largest emitter of methane from an underground coal mine in the U.S. and one of only 12 mines in the country that does not capture vented methane for use. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

The mine is owned by a subsidiary of Missouri-based Arch Coal, the nation’s second largest coal company.

April 15, 2010

Federal agencies begin the process of a 1,700-acre expansion of coal leases into the Sunset Roadless Area in Colorado. Lease owner Arch Coal's West Elk underground mine will have to remove methane, which it does by bulldozing roads to construct vents drilled into the coal seam from on top.

The Sunset Roadless Area, a 5,800-acre area within the Gunnison National Forest, is prime wildlife habitat and is home to pristine forests of aspen and giant spruce.

May 21, 2010

During the public comment period that follows, more than 30,000 comments are submitted in opposition to the mine.

October 21, 2011

After a long-running legal battle, the 2001 National Roadless Rule is upheld by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

But, the federal government is considering a Colorado-specific Rule that would allow miles of roads to be built in 20,000 acres of roadless areas to meet the desires of coal companies hoping to develop these wild areas for mining.

Close Timeline
November 8, 2011

The Forest Service (Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison (“GMUG”) National Forest) approves the 1,700-acre expansion of Arch Coal’s West Elk coal mine. The decision would allow well pads and miles of road to be built into the pristine lands of the Sunset Roadless Area.

Late 2011

Earthjustice files a formal appeal of the decision to the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region in Denver, on behalf of the Sierra Club, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife.

February 13, 2012

The Forest Service’s regional office in Denver overturns GMUG National Forest's approval of the coal mine expansion. The Rocky Mountain Region states that GMUG National Forest did not explain why it had weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent landslides.

June 2012
July 3, 2012

The state-specific Colorado Roadless Rule goes into effect, superseding the National Roadless Rule. A 20,000-acre loophole built in to the Colorado Roadless Rule opens the door for mines to bulldoze miles of road in pristine forest north and east of Paonia.

July 8, 2012

The public comment period on the tweaked proposal concludes, with tens of thousands of comments submitted in opposition to the mine's expansion.

Close Timeline
August 10, 2012

GMUG National Forest admits that it would be “environmentally preferred” to protect the wildest, most pristine part of the Sunset Roadless Area from bulldozing for road construction and for scraping well pads that would benefit Arch Coal.

But the agency approves the most aggressive coal mine expansion proposal for the West Elk mine.

September 24, 2012

Earthjustice files an administrative appeal with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Forester in Denver challenging the decision on behalf of the WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizens’ Alliance Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Wild and Defenders of Wildlife.

The appeal argues that the GMUG National Forest's decision re-approving the mine expansion violates federal laws meant to protect the climate wildlife, air quality, and forest lands.

December 27, 2012

The Bureau of Land Management approves the coal mine expansion.

January 28, 2013

Earthjustice files an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, on behalf of the conservation groups High Country Citizens’ Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild, and the Sierra Club.

The groups argue that BLM violated federal environmental laws in authorizing Arch Coal’s mine expansion, and that the impacts developing methane venting wells will irreparably alter the Sunset Roadless Area.

July 2, 2013

A federal court lawsuit challenging the approval of the mine expansion is filed by Earthjustice, representing WildEarth Guardians and High Country Citizens' Alliance. (Sierra Club joins the suit later.)

Close Timeline
June 27, 2014

In a landmark decision, the U.S. District Court of Colorado rules on the court challenge. Citing agencies’ neglect to consider climate change impacts, the Court rejects federal agencies’ approval of Arch Coal’s plans to bulldoze roads through the pristine Sunset Roadless Area.

The Court held that the Forest Service looked at the benefits to the local economy—but ignored the global costs of climate change, stating: “It is arbitrary to offer detailed projections of a project’s upside while omitting a feasible projection of the project’s costs.”

The court’s decision has nationwide implications and halts—for the time being—Arch Coal’s plan to begin exploring for coal in the heart of the Sunset Roadless Area.

September 12, 2014

U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson issues a ruling eliminating the coal mining loophole in the Colorado Roadless Rule, and vacating the lease expansion. The order finalizes the June 27 decision.

The West Elk mine expansion on roadless lands cannot occur unless, and until, the Forest Service and the BLM correct the legal violations, and the agencies make new decisions that permit road construction for coal mining in roadless areas and that permit Arch Coal to expand its lease.

April 6, 2015

The Forest Service moves to revive the loophole in Colorado Roadless Rule. The agency announces its intent to analyze the loophole’s potential harms and benefits in a draft Environmental Impact Statement. The loophole will pave the way for Arch Coal to move ahead with its West Elk mine expansion into the Sunset Roadless Area.

May 22, 2015

The Forest Service receives an avalanche of protest from more than 100,000 people, urging the agency to reject re-opening the loophole.

November 19, 2015

The Forest Service continues to move forward on re-opening the loophole by issuing a draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The draft EIS concludes that the damage to the global economy and environment from the climate pollution unleashed by mining coal in roadless forest could be in the billions of dollars. The actual costs are likely far higher; experts found plenty of ways that the Forest Service low-balled the loophole’s climate costs.

January 15, 2016

The Interior Department announces a “pause” in coal leasing on federal lands, but specifically exempts Arch Coal’s proposed expansion plan from the leasing moratorium.

Close Timeline
January 20, 2016

More than 150,000 people, including thousands of Coloradans, submit comments to the draft EIS, calling on the Forest Service to prevent the West Elk mine expansion.

March 2016

The Forest Service begins the process for re-approving West Elk mine’s leases that will expand into the Sunset Roadless Area, taking advantage of the impending approval of the roadless rule coal mine loophole.

April 12, 2016

More than 60,000 comments are submitted in opposition to the mine's expansion.

November 17, 2016

The Forest Service issues the final Environmental Impact Statement on the Colorado Roadless Rule coal mine loophole, disclosing that the mining and burning of the coal at issue would result in millions of tons of climate pollution, and cause up to $3.4 billion in global damage due to worsened climate change.

December 19, 2016

The Forest Service issues its decision approving the roadless rule loophole, inviting the mining of 170 million tons of coal, and bulldozing of wild aspen and spruce forest in the Sunset and Flat Irons Roadless areas immediately adjacent to Mount Gunnison in the West Elk Wilderness, 45 miles southwest of Aspen, Colorado.

According to a Forest Service analysis, coal mined from these roadless lands will displace nearly 10,000 gigawatt hours of clean, renewable power including solar and wind.

June 8, 2017

A draft environmental impact study addressing a plan to approve Arch Coal’s proposal to lease 1,700 acres of roadless wildlands in the Gunnison National Forest for mining 17 million tons of coal is issued, beginning a 45-day public comment period. Read more.

December 18, 2017

Earthjustice, representing conservation groups, sue to stop imminent expansion of the West Elk coal mine into roadless wild lands on the Gunnison National Forest. Read more.

March 2, 2020

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the U.S. Forest Service illegally approved a loophole allowing the coal industry to despoil unroaded National Forest lands in western Colorado. Read more.

Return to Feature
If the coal mine expansion is approved, the cost to the climate will be real.

Arch Coal’s existing industrial operations scar the landscape west of the Sunset Roadless Area. The company already has a ten-year supply of coal at its current rate of mining, even without the expansion of the coal mine lease. Trump’s Forest Service proposes to give Arch Coal additional access to more than 17 million tons of coal.

Left in place, the coal and methane under the roadless area will not contribute to the planetary crisis of climate change. But leaving them alone is not what Arch Coal has in mind.

Take Action: Defend Public Lands & Our Climate

Methane vents from Arch Coal's existing industrial operations.
Photo courtesy of Ecoflight
Methane vents west of Sunset Roadless Area. Arch Coal's existing industrial operations. They seek to expand into the Sunset Roadless Area.
Up to an acre of forest is leveled to clear a place to drill a hole from which methane can be vented.
U.S. Forest Service
Impacts of underground mining. Up to an acre of forest is leveled to clear a place to drill a hole from which methane can be vented. Step-by-step process of the construction
It will be decades—if ever—before habitat similar to that that the Forest Service allowed to be cut down is restored.
U.S. Forest Service
Impacts of underground mining. It will be decades—if ever—before habitat similar to that that the Forest Service allowed to be cut down is restored.

The underground mining will vent hundreds of millions of cubic feet of methane—a potent climate pollutant—into the atmosphere from a tight web of industrial facilities scraped and bulldozed through the forest.

Methane traps more than 80 times more heat than CO2 in the short-term. According data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, from 2013 to 2015, the mine Arch Coal seeks to expand was the largest single industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado. Arch Coal will not be required to capture, burn, or reduce any of the methane pollution.

Today, Colorado’s solar and wind industries employ more than 14,000 people, about twelve times as many as work in the state’s mines.

The future of jobs and energy is becoming clearer — and cleaner. Deepening our reliance on dirty fuels will only lead to higher costs for us all.

Thank you to the nearly 45,000 people spoke up during the public comment period on the Forest Service’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for Arch Coal’s mine lease expansion into the Sunset Roadless Area.

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Earthjustice's Rocky Mountain Office is located in Denver.

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