A drive over Kebler Pass is a rewarding trip for Gunnison Valley residents and visitors alike. The expansive views of the West Elk Mountains, with their iconic aspen forests, have inspired many to heed the call of the wild.

HCCA staff members did just that last week, venturing into the Sunset Roadless Area on the northern flanks of the West Elk Wilderness. On this trip wildflowers and head-tall ferns were abundant, as were signs of black bear and elk. Towering aspen and spruce, thickets of gambel oak, and beaver pond wetlands offered a diverse array of habitats and haunts for wildlife. But as we hiked deeper into the roadless forest, we found trees marked with bright pink flagging tape, a sign of change on the horizon.







The ferns were tall, the bear scat was abundant, and there was pink flagging tape everywhere.

The flagging tape, so incongruent with the solitude of the forest, marks the locations of proposed roads and drilling pads meant to facilitate expansion of the West Elk Coal Mine. The mine wants to expand operations into 1,700 acres of the Sunset Roadless Area to access 17 million tons of coal. Accessing that coal would release staggering amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

As the Forest Service considers the expansion proposal, the Bureau of Land Management is considering renewing the royalty rate reduction for the West Elk Coal Mine. St. Louis-based Arch Coal, which owns the mine, is proposing to reduce by almost 40% the royalty it pays on coal mined in Gunnison County.

If you care about healthy public lands, communities receiving their fair share from coal royalties, protecting wildlife habitat, transitioning away from coal and to renewable energy, or think that approving coal mine expansion without requiring methane capture is irresponsible, there are two upcoming opportunities to share your concerns with decision-makers.

  • On Tuesday, July 11, at 8:50 a.m. the Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners will be considering the merits of the expansion and royalty rate reduction proposals. I encourage you to attend the meeting and/or submit comments to bocc@gunnisoncounty.org. The meeting will be held at the Gunnison County Courthouse, 200 E. Virginia Ave.
  • In addition, the Forest Service is accepting comments on the expansion proposal until July 24. If you haven’t done so already, please submit concerns you have with the proposal through the agency’s website: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=32459.

In an increasingly crowded West, roadless forests are a reminder of what used to be, and a sanctuary from what we expect to come. As our community forges its future through the decisions made today, let us meet the challenges ahead with optimism and foresight.