For over a decade High Country Conservation Advocates has been defending Gunnison County public lands from proposals for coal mine expansion in pristine roadless areas. Our 2014 landmark legal victory in federal court invalidated the Colorado Roadless Rule loophole that permitted coal mining in the North Fork Roadless Area. That court decision allowed the Forest Service to revive the loophole only if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. In response, the agency undertook new analysis, and its findings are staggering: up to $3.4 billion in global damage due to worsened climate change, displacement of nearly ten thousand gigawatt hours of renewable power, and the release of millions of tons of climate pollution. Over 150,000 comments were submitted opposing the revived loophole, including a letter submitted by the Town of Crested Butte, which states:

As a Colorado high country mountain town, we are dependent on climate stability to support our lush green pastures, world-class wildflowers, and ski industry. All of the values that our community depends upon are jeopardized when decisions continue to be made that lead us toward drought, further fragment wildlife habitat, and degrade scenic mountain vistas with concentrated roads and well pads.

But opposing political pressure and Forest Service acquiescence culminated in December with the Obama administration issuing a final rule that opens 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest to bulldozing for coal mining. The rule becomes effective on February 17, 2017.

It is likely that the loophole will benefit just one mine, Arch Coal’s West Elk mine. Arch has a pending application to mine under 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area, and to build six miles of road and 48 drill pads directly adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness, which will give the company access to 19 million tons of coal. Now that the coal mine exception is on its way to implementation, the GMUG can begin processing this pending lease application, for which the Forest Service issued a scoping notice last year. HCCA expects a Draft EIS to be released this spring, followed by a 45-day public comment period. The lease modifications are proposed in the heart of a wild, roadless landscape.

So where do we go? HCCA and our conservation partners are considering action against the rule and attempts to implement it, and are taking a hard look at challenging this damaging decision in court. In addition, HCCA is monitoring Arch Coal’s pending lease applications to mine in the Sunset Roadless Area, and will submit comments, build local support, and continue alerting the public to the massive climate and public lands impacts from these proposals. For more information and to learn how you can become involved, please contact Public Lands Director Matt Reed at matt@hccacb.org.