The U.S Forest Service received an avalanche of protest from more than 100,000 people Friday, urging the agency to reject a proposal to allow Arch Coal to bulldoze dozens of miles of roads through pristine national forest in Colorado’s backcountry. Almost 5,000 signatures were submitted from Colorado residents.
National and local conservation groups are calling on the U.S. Forest Service to abandon a move to revive a loophole to the Colorado Roadless Rule, announced last month. The loophole paves the way for Arch Coal to expand its underground West Elk mine in an area where crucial wildlife reside. Under the proposal, dozens of miles of road could be bulldozed across 19,000 acres of publicly owned roadless forest, destroying habitat for black bear and elk, goshawk and lynx. Oxbow—recently cited with building roads and drill pads beyond its permitted area—could also benefit from the loophole.
In 2014, Earthjustice, representing local and national organizations, won a court decision to block the loophole in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. The court left the door open for the Forest Service to revive it if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. Re-opening the loophole could result in more than half a billion tons of carbon pollution from mining and burning the coal.
The agency intends to analyze the loophole’s potential harms and benefits in a draft environmental impact statement, which will be released this fall for public review and comment. The groups provided initial comments to the agency on Friday. A final decision on the loophole is expected in the spring of 2016.
“The groundswell of opposition shows the Forest Service’s proposal is not in the public’s interest,” said Earthjustice Attorney Ted Zukoski, who represented the groups in federal court. “There is no winning with a loophole that threatens the world’s climate, as well as Colorado’s wild forests, wildlife, hikers and hunters.”
"The Forest Service is dangerously out of step with the rest of the Obama Administration here on addressing climate change," said Roger Singer, with the Sierra Club in Colorado. "Creating a loophole for Arch Coal's mines could result in up to half a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, more than the annual emissions of one hundred thousand cars. The U.S. Forest Service should not be making special exceptions for private companies that degrade our public lands, damage the forests under their care, and undermine U.S. climate change goals."
“Companies that don’t pay their fair share or don’t comply with their own permits should not profit off public lands and federal minerals,” said Alli Melton, of High Country Conservation Advocates. “If Arch coal is going to profit from bulldozing pristine forests and further contribute to climate change, they need to pay their fair share in royalties to help us transition our communities away from coal and its negative impacts to the headwaters of the Colorado River. As for Oxbow, its recent permit violations should not be implicitly condoned by setting the stage for it to bulldoze sensitive forest habitats.”
"Our forests and our climate are being thrown under the bus for a single coal company," said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians. "We're calling on the Forest Service to stop its plans and start putting the public, not Arch Coal, first."
“Destroying some of our last pristine backcountry to mine climate-destroying coal would be terrible public policy,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Forest Service and Obama administration should withdraw this foolish plan and keep this dirty coal in the ground where it belongs.”
See photos of the roadless areas at risk.