Twelve Colorado and national conservation organizations called on President Barack Obama Nov. 21 to enforce the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the state’s national forests. They also asked his administration to reject a state plan that would open those areas to new drilling, logging and coal mining.
The groups’ appeal, which was published as a full-page ad in the Denver Post, comes one month after the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the national rule, which protects roughly one-third of America’s national forests. The state of Colorado has said that legal uncertainty—which the court ruling cleared up—was the rationale to develop a separate proposal for Colorado’s national forest roadless areas.
The state plan, however, would allow expanded coal mining and roughly 100 new oil and gas leases that the national rule would not permit. While the Obama administration has long supported the national rule—including defending it in the Tenth Circuit case—it has yet to announce that it will abandon the separate, flawed Colorado plan.
“The ruling from the court was clear, and so is the message from Colorado groups—Our national forests deserve the full protection of the national roadless rule and nothing less,” said Elise Jones, executive director of Colorado Environmental Coalition. “The Colorado plan, which had been billed as an insurance policy, is no longer necessary.”
Within the past two years, the administration has received more than 200,000 messages from the public criticizing the Colorado proposal and calling for the state’s 4.4 million acres of national forests to receive the protections of the 2001 rule. A letter from 520 leading scientists expressing concern about the Colorado proposal went to the administration in December 2009.
“The court’s decision gives the president the green light to fulfill his pledge to enforce the roadless rule,” said Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands director for the Pew Environment Group. “It’s time for the Obama administration to abandon a flawed plan for Colorado’s undeveloped national forests that would leave them with less protection than those in the rest of the country.”
Colorado’s roadless areas are the source of about one-third of the state’s surface water, which provides irreplaceable habitat for fish and wildlife. Colorado’s national forests are also the economic engine for an outdoor recreation industry that injects $10 billion annually into the state’s economy, including $500 million in state tax revenue and 107,000 jobs.
“Two appellate courts have now confirmed the roadless rule is the law of the land, including in Colorado,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell, who argued the roadless rule case. "Colorado's forests deserve the first-class protections vindicated in court rather than the watered-down, second-class protections offered by the state rule.”
The national roadless rule protects nearly 60 million acres of pristine national forests in 38 states. It was the result of the largest public lands review process in U.S. history, with more than 1.2 million comments and 600 public hearings. Last month’s Tenth Circuit decision to uphold this policy followed a similar ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009.
The open letter was signed by Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, Earthjustice, High Country Citizens Alliance, the Pew Environment Group, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Western Colorado Congress, and Wilderness Workshop. To read the open letter, click here.
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The U.S. Forest Service issued a decision Nov. 8 that literally paves the way for conglomerate Arch Coal to build up to 48 well pads and 6.5 miles of road into pristine roadless lands about ten miles east of Paonia, Colo. This decision permits a 1,700-acre expansion of Arch’s West Elk coal mine, one of the state’s largest greenhouse gas polluters.
The Obama administration’s action comes on the heels of the recent decision by the Denver-based Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the 2001 National Roadless Rule, court action in which the administration defended that rule. The National Roadless Rule prohibits road construction on about 4 million acres of roadless forest in Colorado, including the Sunset Trail Roadless Area that Arch Coal would develop.
“The Forest Service is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that defended the 2001 National Roadless Rule in courtrooms across the nation for the last decade.
The majority expansion is within the Sunset Trail Roadless Area, a pristine landscape of beaver ponds and aspen and conifer forests which provides habitat for lynx, elk and black bear adjacent to the scenic West Elk Wilderness Area. The Obama administration’s decision will likely turn this wild roadless area into an industrial zone of well pads and roads, with an average of 18 wells pads—and two miles of road—per square mile.
“The administration should not be paving the way for an incursion into roadless lands when a court has just upheld its authority to protect those lands,” Zukoski said. “This administration promised to protect Colorado roadless areas as well or better than the 2001 Roadless Rule required. It doesn’t look like they intend to live up to that promise.”
The administration is considering a Colorado-specific rule that, unlike the National Roadless Rule, will allow dozens of miles of road to be built in 20,000 acres of roadless areas to meet the desires of several coal companies hoping to develop these wild areas for mining. The administration received more than 30,000 comments opposing the coal mines in May 2010.
“With this decision, we know what the administration’s proposed Colorado roadless rule would mean—miles of roads, well pads and a maze of destruction on stunning landscapes right next to one of the state’s flagship wilderness areas,” said Suzanne Jones, Colorado regional director for The Wilderness Society.
Although the West Elk coal mine is underground, safe coal mining in the North Fork Valley requires that methane venting wells be drilled above the mine. The West Elk Mine spews millions of cubic feet of methane pollution every day. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times more heat trapping ability than carbon dioxide. Methane venting makes the West Elk coal mine one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in Colorado.
West Elk’s methane pollution also wastes a valuable commodity—natural gas. Forest Service and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data show the amount of methane vented at West Elk could heat a city about the size of Grand Junction. But the Forest Service has refused to require the Mine to capture, burn or reduce any of the Mine’s methane pollution.
“This project is a lose-lose-lose proposition,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “The public loses a fantastic wild area, loses millions in potential royalties from methane that is wasted instead of captured, and loses due to the massive pollution the mine causes. It’s time the Forest Service stood up to Big Coal and said no to this kind of damaging expansion.”
- Video documenting threats to Sunset Trail Roadless Area
- High resolution images of the Sunset Trail Roadless Area
- Pictures of current methane venting at the West Elk coal mine
- Comments of conservation groups Colorado Wild (now Rocky Mountain Wild), WildEarth Guardians, High Country Citizen’s Alliance, Wilderness Workshop, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife criticizing the Forest Service’s initial proposal (from May 2010)
- Forest Service map of the proposed lease modification boundaries
- The Forest Service’s decision
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