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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.

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.

For years, conservation groups have battled an exemption to the U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 Colorado Roadless Rule for the North Fork Coal Mining Area, which allowed roadbuilding related to coal mining. Courts have twice ruled the exemption to be illegal.

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.

Located just east of the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine is one of the largest coal mines in Colorado and the single-largest industrial source of methane in the state.

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 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.

Case Updates

June 15, 2020 | In the News: The Colorado Sun

A federal court ruled a coal company couldn’t build a road on public land near Paonia. The company did it anyway.

Robin Cooley, Attorney, Rocky Mountain Office, Earthjustice: “I can’t speak to their motivation, but I can definitely say that it isn’t surprising to me that the District Court was taking some time given that the courts have been closed down by the COVID crisis so for Mountain Coal to use that to their advantage is pretty unacceptable. Mountain Coal said what would happen if the court vacated the North Fork Exception. And the court vacated the exception and they built their road anyway.”