Saturday, June 6, 2020

Court of Appeals vacates USFS’ North Fork exception to allow coal mining

Cites failure to consider alternatives and impacts

By Katherine Nettles

A federal appeals court ruled this week that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) 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 areas in Gunnison County’s North Fork Valley and brings an end to several years of litigation.

Matt Reed, public lands director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), which was a plaintiff in the case, feels the ruling confirms the value of climate and wildlife issues in the areas affected.

The USFS adopted the Colorado Roadless Rule in 2012, prohibiting road construction and coal mine leasing in designated areas, but it exempted the North Fork Coal Mining Area. This included thousands of acres of roadless lands outside of Paonia. A coalition of five conservation groups—High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Workshop—sued the agency twice beginning in 2014 to protect the wildlands and to force the agency to look at alternatives to minimize climate pollution.

District court ruled in favor of the coalition in 2014, vacating the Forest Service North Fork exception. However, the court ruled against the coalition in a 2017 lawsuit after the USFS prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and re-adopted the North Fork exception, also approving applications related to coal mine leases.

This final decision by the court of appeals reverses the last ruling, maintains that the USFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Policy Act, and once again vacates the North Fork exception.

The appeals court ruled that 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. That exclusion would safeguard the national forest from potential coal leasing and, conservationists argued, protect wildlife including bald eagles, elk, mule deer and the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse.

“The Forest Service failed to provide a logically coherent explanation for its decision to eliminate the Pilot Knob Alternative,” the court wrote. “NEPA requires federal agencies to pause before committing resources to a project and consider the likely environmental impacts of the preferred course of action as well as reasonable alternatives.”

Conservation groups came out immediately following the March 2 ruling to celebrate their victory.

“This is something that HCCA has been working on … going back 10 years. And we’ve won these legal victories because the Forest Service has not complied with the laws of NEPA,” Reed reflected.

“The Forest Service can no longer ignore the climate and wildlife benefits of keeping Pilot Knob’s roadless forest free from coal mining,” Reed said. “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.”

“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 the Wilderness Workshop. “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.”

“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, near Paonia in the area addressed within the North Fork exception. The judge ordered the Trump administration to consider limiting methane emissions and address potential harm to water and fish.

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