DENVER— A federal appeals court today ruled that the U.S. Forest Service broke the law by failing to consider an alternative that would protect the Gunnison National Forest’s Pilot Knob area from coal mining. The decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals directs the lower court to vacate an exception that allowed the Forest Service to approve coal mining in roadless forests in the Gunnison River’s North Fork.
“The Forest Service failed to provide a logically coherent explanation for its decision to eliminate the Pilot Knob Alternative,” the court wrote.
The Forest Service should have considered excluding 4,900 acres in the Gunnison National Forest’s Pilot Knob roadless area when it reopened nearly 20,000 acres to coal leasing and mining, the court ruled. That exclusion would safeguard the national forest from potential coal leasing and protect wildlife including bald eagles, elk, mule deer and imperiled Gunnison sage grouse.
“The Forest Service can no longer ignore the climate and wildlife benefits of keeping Pilot Knob’s roadless forest free from coal mining,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pilot Knob is an irreplaceable treasure, providing winter range for deer and bald eagles, severe winter range for elk, and historic and potential future habitat for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse. It is the last place we should be tearing up for coal mining.”
Conservation groups sued in December 2017 to protect these pristine wildlands and force the agencies to look at alternatives to minimize climate pollution.
“Colorado roadless areas are a treasure we all share. The U.S. Forest Service long ago decided that these areas needed protection,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Nonetheless, when the agency implemented the Colorado Roadless Rule, it exempted thousands of acres of pristine roadless lands outside of Paonia from protection to allow for coal mining. Today’s decision vacates that exception and it will, hopefully, ensure that North Fork Roadless Areas, including spectacular Pilot Knob, are properly protected for generations to come.”
“This is a big victory for Colorado’s wildlife and wild places,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump officials have been ruthlessly sacrificing our national forests and beautiful wilderness at the behest of polluters. Now they must do their jobs and consider an alternative that would protect important wildlife habitat. It’s encouraging to see the court stand up for bald eagles, mountain lions, mule deer and sage grouse.”
Located in the West Elk Mountains just east of the town of Paonia, the West Elk mine is the single-largest industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado. In 2017 it released more than 440,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from more than 98,000 cars.
“The Trump administration can’t sacrifice public lands at the expense of our climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “Today’s ruling is another win for the American public over the dirty coal industry and their climate-denying cronies in the federal government.”
“While the Trump administration attempts to put our most treasured places in Colorado into the hands of corporate polluters, this victory undermines their blatant disregard for protecting our planet,” said Emily Gedeon, acting director of the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter. “These are our public lands, and we're proud to fight for them.”
“This is a victory for the remarkable wild forests of the North Fork Valley,” said Robin Cooley, the Earthjustice attorney who argued the case on behalf of the conservation groups. “The Court reversed the Forest Service’s decision to carve out an exception to Colorado’s roadless area protections in order to pave the way for expansion of a dirty and destructive coal mine. As a result of the ruling, the Forest Service must go back to the drawing board and consider whether to protect more of the Valley’s irreplaceable roadless forests.”
In November a federal court in Colorado ruled for conservation groups in a related case and blocked expansion of the West Elk coal mine. The judge ordered the Trump administration to consider limiting methane emissions and address potential harm to water and fish.