For nearly a decade, the question of whether a mining company, Mountain Coal, would be allowed to expand operations into a pristine wilderness area deep in the Gunnison National Forest has been mired in litigation. On Aug. 10, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled in favor of allowing the expansion.
A group of environmental advocates who brought the lawsuit are weighing their options for an appeal. “The next step is still being discussed and thought through,” said Matt Reed, public lands program director for High Country Conservation Advocates, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “HCCA and our partners will continue to fight for these public lands and the roadless lands.”
The forest land in question, dubbed the Sunset Roadless Area, is about 5,800 acres of relatively undeveloped wilderness in the North Fork Valley east of Paonia and west of Crested Butte. There are two trails in the area, but the land is popular among outdoor recreation enthusiasts for more dispersed activities such as hiking and camping. The land also includes diverse flora and fauna, fish and wildlife habitat, and significant spans of mature aspen groves.
The West Elk Mine sits adjacent to the Sunset Roadless Area and runs underneath portions of the Grand Mesa as well as the Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. For years, the mine’s operator — currently Mountain Coal — has sought to expand mining operations into a 1,700-acre area of the Sunset wilderness. The expansion would involve construction of roads and drilling pads. “That’s what drives our engagement in this,” Reed said. “It’s roadless, and those areas are fewer and fewer; it really has some tremendous value that our local community cares about.”