Coal Tattoo

Construction of methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, Colorado. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Given all of the talk about the Obama administration’s “war on coal”, it’s certainly interesting that this decision, announced by Earthjustice, comes just one day after Tuesday’s general election:

The U.S. Forest Service yesterday ruled against conservation groups’ challenge to the Forest Service’s approval of a coal mine expansion within the Sunset Roadless Area 10 miles east of Paonia, Colorado. The coal lease expansion, together with loopholes built into the Colorado Roadless Rule last July, will allow corporate giant Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of road and 48 natural gas drilling pads through 1,700 acres—nearly three-square miles—of wild, roadless forest.

The appeal filed in September 2012 with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Forester in Denver, sought to overturn an August decision affirming Arch Coal’s West Elk mine expansion into roadless lands that provide habitat for lynx, black bear, elk and goshawk. The conservation groups argued that the mine expansion violates laws meant to protect wildlife, air quality, and forest lands, as well as the Colorado Roadless Rule.

Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, said:

Smokey Bear has turned his back on Colorado’s natural, roadless lands … Instead, the Forest Service has literally paved the way for a coal mega-corporation to destroy real bear habitat. The Sunset Roadless Area is a beautiful forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and hawks. This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests.

One interesting point here is that Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine is located partly in Gunnison County, Colo., one of only two of the top 25 U.S. coal-producing counties to vote for President Obama’s re-election.

More interesting, though, is this, explained by Earthjustice:

The conservation groups won an appeal in February 2012, overturning the Forest Service’s initial approval of this expansion, when the Forest Service concluded that it had failed to explain weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent landslides.

But when the Colorado Roadless Rule was adopted by the Obama administration in July in place of the National Roadless Rule, Colorado became subject to lower levels of protection for its roadless lands than for virtually all other roadless forest lands in the nation.

Matt Reed, acting Director of High Country Citizens’ Alliance based in Gunnison County, said:

The loopholes built in to the Colorado Rule leave 20,000 acres of pristine forest on Colorado’s West Slope open to destruction by coal mines. With this decision, the Forest Service rubber-stamped Arch Coal’s plan, and greenlighted use of these loopholes to bulldoze through wild forests.