Feds re­lax road­less rule in Colo.

U.S. For­est Ser­vice grants the state an ex­cep­tion, again, for ex­pan­sion of min­ing.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Bruce Fin­ley

The U.S. For­est Ser­vice has fi­nal­ized an ex­cep­tion for Colorado in the na­tion’s rule for pro­tect­ing last re­main­ing road­less forests: al­low­ing ex­pan­sion of a coal mine that cuts be­neath pris­tine woods near Pao­nia in the North Fork Val­ley.

That de­ci­sion en­abling con­struc­tion of tem­po­rary roads and drilling pads on 19,700 acres — to be pub­lished Monday in the fed­eral regis­ter — re­flects the lat­est ver­sion of a com­pro­mise Colorado of­fi­cials have de­manded for years.

A national road­less rule since 2001 has pro­hib­ited con­struc­tion of new roads and other de­vel­op­ment that could hurt in­tact forests, and a Colorado ver­sion of it adopted in 2012 cov­ers 4.2 mil­lion acres in the state.

But Colorado lead­ers have pressed for the coal mine ex­cep­tion, even af­ter a fed­eral court in 2014 re­jected it as likely to worsen cli­mate change. Last week, For­est Ser­vice re­gional di­rec­tor Dan Jiron re­vealed, via e-mail, the de­ci­sion to grant a re­crafted ex­cep­tion. Jiron could not be reached to dis­cuss it.

This ex­cep­tion could help Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine ex­tract hun­dreds of mil­lion of tons more coal from un­der the Gun­ni­son National For­est by giv­ing ac­cess to sur­face forests — needed for ex­pand­ing un­der­ground tun­nels. West Elk Mine crews would have to carve out tem­po­rary roads and clear pads to drill vents that re­move meth­ane gases from tun­nels so min­ers could pro­duce safely.

Western Colorado en­vi­ron­ment ad­vo­cates blasted the For­est Ser­vice de­ci­sion as bad for wildlife habi­tat and for the cli­mate — be­cause of the emis­sions of heat­trap­ping meth­ane and car­bon diox­ide from burn­ing coal.

“It is wrong to make a de­ci­sion that is go­ing to re­sult in a sig­nif­i­cant cost to the world econ­omy and the en­vi­ron­ment and to Colorado’s en­vi­ron­ment,” Earthjus­tice staff at­tor­ney Ted Zukoski said.

“The U.S. For­est Ser­vice is mak­ing cli­mate change worse. They are say­ing, ‘We are OK with $3 bil­lion more in cli­mate costs’ to so­ci­ety. They are say­ing, ‘We are OK with mil­lions of ex­tra tons of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from burn­ing coal and meth­ane from min­ing it.’ ”

St. Louis-based Arch Coal has ap­plied to the For­est Ser­vice for a per­mit to ex­pand the West Elk Mine. For­est Ser­vice of­fi­cials ap­par­ently are re­view­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion.

Statewide coal pro­duc­tion has plum­meted 50 per­cent since 2004, cost­ing hun­dreds of jobs. And crit­ics con­tend the ex­cep­tion to the road­less rule amounts to a give­away to the coal in­dus­try — one that un­der­cuts the U.S. com--

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