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Trump Administration Pushes Coal Mining in Roadless Forest in Colorado

Forest Service Pushes to Mine Next to West Elk Wilderness, Giving Arch Coal Access to More Than 17 Million Tons of Coal

     by Center for Biological Diversity

DENVER— Just days after announcing the U.S. will exit the Paris climate agreement, the Trump administration today pushed ahead with plans for another damaging action: a plan to approve Arch Coal’s proposal to lease 1,700 acres of roadless wildlands in the Gunnison National Forest for mining 17 million tons of coal. The plan, addressed in a draft environmental impact study, would greenlight exploratory drilling and road construction to expand the West Elk coal mine about 40 miles southwest of Aspen.

Mount Gunnison perched atop the Sunset Roadless Area. The aspen forests on the right would have been scarred by six miles of road and nearly 50 methane drainage well pads if the lease expansion had gone forward. Ted Zukoski / Earthjustice

Local, regional, and national conservation groups condemned the proposal.

“This coal mine expansion proposal brings Trump’s dirty energy agenda to Colorado,” said Matt Reed, public lands director for Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “Pristine forests, abundant wildlife, clean water, and a healthy snowpack are the cornerstones of our local economy and quality of life, and this destructive proposal threatens all of these values.”

The Colorado mine expansion plan follows high-profile Trump actions to allow coal mines and coal-fired power plants to foul America’s air and water, including killing rules meant to stop mines from dumping millions of tons of metal-laced waste rock into streams, rolling back measures limiting arsenic, lead and mercury pollution poured into rivers and lakes by coal-fired power plants, gutting protections that limit health-threatening air pollutants from such plants, and, last week, terminating America’s commitment to reduce planet-heating climate pollution pursuant to the Paris Agreement signed by more than 190 nations.

Under Arch Coal’s plan, more than six miles of roads will be bulldozed and as many as 48 drilling pads with vents to release methane will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which is adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for black bear, elk, lynx and cutthroat trout.

Mining in this pristine area will create a spiderweb of roads and industrial facilities on 1,700 acres of public lands, similar to that already encroaching toward wilderness.

“Bulldozing aspen groves to mine coal is exactly the sort of senseless destruction we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration,” said Allison Melton, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But it’s madness for the climate and a raw deal for the people of Colorado, and we’re not going to sit still and let it happen.”

The Trump administration’s latest action exploits Colorado’s Roadless Rule loophole, reinstated last year after being thrown out by a lawsuit, which opened the door for road construction within about 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest to subsidize coal mining.

The lease that the Forest Service is poised to approve will give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal, extending the life of the West Elk mine by about three or four years. The company already has an estimated 10-year supply of coal under lease.

The West Elk mine was the single largest industrial source of methane pollution in Colorado from 2013 to 2015, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Methane — an immensely potent greenhouse gas — has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over the short term and is a major contributor to climate pollution. The West Elk mine emits so much methane that it wipes out a significant chunk of the benefit from the state’s trailblazing rule to limit waste methane from oil and gas wells.

The impact of pushing more coal into the energy market at a time when the demand for coal has dropped could undercut efforts to transition to a clean energy economy. A 2016 Forest Service study concluded that opening Colorado roadless forests to coal mining would displace renewable energy from the grid.

“While Arch Coal and the U.S. Forest Service may feel the political winds have shifted in their favor recently with the Trump administration, the harsh reality of this polluting coal mining expansion proposal remains the same,” said Jim Alexee, director of the Colorado Sierra Club. “These coal mining operations and the associated road construction will cause irreparable harm to our local air quality, to our climate, and to the wildlife living in the Sunset Roadless Area.”

“Giving away our western public lands to the coal industry isn’t energy independence, it’s a scheme to make executives and shareholders rich at our expense,” said Shannon Hughes, climate guardian for WildEarth Guardians.  “Our future is clean energy and vibrant public lands, not more fossil fuel giveaways in our backcountry.”

“Roadless areas are important for many of the wildlife species in our state including the federally threatened Canada lynx,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “Sacrificing these areas to appease the interests of the coal industry is irresponsible public lands management.”

“At this point in history when climate change is already causing devastating impacts in Colorado and worldwide, it is unconscionable to continue mining and burning fossil fuels, especially on federal and public lands,” said Micah Parkin with 350 Colorado. “We must begin leaving fossil fuels in the ground and transitioning rapidly to Colorado’s abundant renewable energy if we are to have any chance of staying below the 1.5-2 degrees C global temperature rise that countries around the world have agreed to.”

“It’s shameless that our roadless public lands and prime wildlife habitat will now be leased to a coal company for its own profit,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “We need to transition to a future with clean energy jobs, clean air, and healthy communities, and not commit our public lands for more development that pollutes our water, air, and climate.”

The groups pledged to oppose the plan through public comments, which the Forest Service will accept through July 24.  The public can submit concerns about the proposal through the agency’s website: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=32459.

“This proposal is the latest example of the Trump administration’s apparent desire to ignore science, poison the air we breathe, and undermine our shared responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice. “We’ll keep fighting Trump’s damaging mining plan because we need to protect what Coloradans love best about our state: clean air, scenic mountains, healthy streams, and vibrant wildlife populations.”

Read more the roadless area and what’s at stake.

See photos of the roadless areas the Forest Service opened to bulldozing, as well as of damage from Arch Coal’s ongoing mining operations to nearby forests.

Bears Ears Alternative Moves Into House of Representatives as Opponents Cry Land Grab

bears_ears_sunset-tim_peterson

The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, touted as an alternative to granting National Monument status to 1.9 million acres in Utah, does not include the two sacred peaks that give the region its name. Photo by Tim Peterson

A congressional bill touted as an alternative to the Bears Ears proposal, an intertribal request to designate nearly two million acres of land as a national monument in southeast Utah, is moving forward to the full House of Representatives.

The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, H.R. 5780, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) passed 21–13 in the Republican-majority House Natural Resources Committee on September 22.

Committee Democrats, including ranking member Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, expressed several concerns with the bill, saying it did not contain a tribal consultation component or protect half a million acres identified by the tribes in their larger Bears Ears designation request.

Grijalva offered an amendment that would remove the Bears Ears National Conservation and the Indian Creek Wilderness areas from the bill. The Public Land Initiative designates about 1.4 million acres of federal land for “conservation and recreation,” according to a media release from the bill’s sponsors, as well as “exchanges and consolidates certain federal and non-federal land; and provides for economic development within the State of Utah.” Opponents say the measure would open the land to natural-resources development and give a fair amount away to unspecified private interests.

Committee Republicans rejected a total of six amendments from Democrats, including one by California Rep. Raul Ruiz that would have protected land, water, roads or other resources within the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation. Calling H.R. 5780 “legislation that tramples over sovereignty and self-determination” and “a modern-day Indian land grab,” Ruiz said the Ute tribe was denied an opportunity to present their concerns to the committee in a formal hearing and that the bill was fast-tracked to avoid a hearing in the Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs (IIANA) Subcommittee, where Ruiz is a ranking member.

“Without a hearing in the IIANA subcommittee we’re not able to fully discuss the true status of these lands within the Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation,” Ruiz said. “H.R. 5780 would be the first bill to take away these lands from these tribes. Attempting to justify taking away these lands based on misleading questions raised at the federal land subcommittee hearing last week is wrong and glazes over the disastrous impact on the tribe’s reservation and impact on federal Indian policy.”

Located in northeastern Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation—made up of the Whiteriver, Uncompahgre and Uintah bands—is rich in oil and gas deposits. The Bureau of Land Management currently oversees land and minerals for sections of tribal land, but Ute officials, citing that the issue of ownership has been settled by past litigation, affirmed the BLM-managed land lies within its boundaries and say the land should have been placed under trust through the Indian Reorganization Act. The tribe opposes the bill, stating it “proposes to take Indian lands and resources to fix Utah’s problems.”

Democrats during the hearing continually referred to opposition from area tribes, including the bill’s exclusion of 500,000 acres of the Bears Ears region named after two 9,000-foot twin buttes, an area residents say is sacred and contains more than 100,000 archeological sites.

RELATED: Bears Ears 1.9 Million–Acre Monument Would Be Unique Tribal-Federal Collaboration

California Republican Tim McClintock said the movement to protect Bears Ears came from outside the Four Corners area, and several tribes in the area have supported the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), including a single elected Navajo official, Republican San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally.

“The testimony that we received from the county commissioner called the claim of the Native American support for the Bears Ears monument campaign a sham,” McClintock said. “She says, ‘I’m here to help you unmask it.’ She did. I’m sorry she didn’t have more sway.”

Ruiz took issue with the characterization of Benally as a spokesperson for the entire Navajo Nation and reminded McClintock about tribal sovereignty.

“First of all, saying that one woman, this Navajo woman acting as a commissioner, using her as a token spokesperson for her tribal nation, that is wrong and not right,” Ruiz said. “The Navajo Nation under their president and their council opposes this land grab and are in solidarity with the Ute Nation. It’s their land; they can decide what to do with their land.”

The Navajo Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe and the Hopi and Zuñi Pueblos support the monument proposal, and created the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition last year after failed attempts to work with Utah representatives.

RELATED: Bears Ears Coalition Splits From ‘Disrespectful’ Congressional Reps

The coalition formally asked President Obama to designate 1.9 million acres in the area as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the President signing power to create such monuments on federal lands.

RELATED: Tribes Ask President Obama to Designate Bears Ears as National Monument

During a press tour of the region in July, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the President plans to make a decision on the issue before the end of his term.

RELATED: Sally Jewell Visits Bears Ears, Says Obama Will Decide on National Monument Before Leaving Office

The issue has deeply divided the Four Corners community. The day before the House Natural Resources hearing a group of Utah Navajos during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol opposed the monument, saying a monument designation would interfere with Bears Ears access and their traditional way of life. Six of seven Navajo communities in Utah have passed resolutions supporting a monument.

Standing with Utah lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert, Navajo resident Susie Philemon made a direct plea to the President, “Please do not take this land from us. Please don’t break more promises not again,” according to the Associated Press.

In a video posted on the day of the Natural Resources meeting, Rep. Bishop, who is committee chairman, said the Public Lands Initiative is a compromise after 1,200 meetings, 50 field trips, and public and private hearings.

“There has been no bill before Congress that has had this kind of transparency and this kind of scrutiny,” Bishop said. “And, in the end of it when we take it to the floor of the House, it will be a good bill that will solve the problems and provide stability moving forward into the future.”

A look at Gold Butte, Nevada, two years after the Bundy standoff

Surveyors found illegal cattle grazing, defaced petroglyphs and ditch-digging. 

    by Anna V. Smith / High Country News

In June 2015, for the first time since federal officers confronted Cliven Bundy and militia members over Bundy’s illegal grazing in 2014, the Bureau of Land Management sent a survey crew to the Gold Butte area near Bunkerville, Nevada. The three surveyors from the Great Basin Institute were there to inventory springs, cattle troughs and seeps. According to contemporary news reports, they encountered Cliven Bundy and his son, Ryan Bundy, who spoke with them briefly and asked what they were doing. Later that night, as the surveyors were getting into their tents, a vehicle lit up the camp with its headlights as it drove by, and shortly afterward, three gunshots rang out nearby. An hour later, they heard three more shots. The surveyors packed up in the dark, left and did not come back. Cliven Bundy told reporters he had not fired the shots, and the BLM kept out of Gold Butte.

Image by Friends of Gold Butte. Read more about FoGB's findings here.  

Bullet holes in petroglyphs. Image by Friends of Gold Butte. Read more about FoGB’s findings here.

Since the standoff at Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy’s roughly 1,000 cattle have remained at large. Nor has the rancher paid the more than $1 million he owes in grazing fees and fines. Cliven Bundy hasn’t escaped altogether, though: In February, he was arrested en route to support his sons’ armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. He is now behind bars awaiting trial in 2017. But in other respects, Bundy got what he wanted: His cattle still graze for free on Gold Butte, just as they have done for the past two decades, despite a 1999 ban, and there was little to no federal oversight for two years.

Read the full article at High Country News

Twenty Arrested at Utah Tar Sands Mine

By Canyon Country Rising Tide

SUNDAY JUNE 19, PR SPRINGS, UT: Thirty people walked onto the country’s first tar sands mine and sowed seeds to regrow land destroyed by tar sands – a fossil fuel more polluting than coal and oil. With butterfly puppets, songs, and banners, protesters trespassed onto the mine site and took the remediation of the stripped land into their own hands with shovels, pick axes and seed balls.

Evidently displeased with the sowing of native grasses and flowers, law enforcement intervened to arrest 20 of the planters, who banded together and sang until arrest. The action was planned by the Tavaputs Action Council, a coalition of grass roots social justice groups of the Colorado Plateau, and came as the conclusion to a 3-day event dedicated to celebrating land and biodiversity. Over 100 people participated, camping on public land next to the tar sands mine and attending workshops, panels, and music shows. People came together to hear about indigenous resistance to fossil fuels and colonialism, and to imagine a more equitable future together.

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Canadian mining company US Oil Sands has leased 32,005 acres of public lands for oil shale development. In the future, 830,000 acres of public land could be at risk of irreversible tar sands strip mining in the western United States. Tar sands requites large quantities of water for processing into crude oil, putting extra pressure on a water system already under threat of running dry.

Kim, Nihigaal Bei Iina, said: “We must remember that if we do not fight we cannot win, we don’t even have a chance of winning. By planting seeds we have a chance of winning another round for mother earth, we still have more battles to fight within us. These seeds planted will harvest another generation of fighters and warriors.”

“The boom and bust failures of coal, tar sands, and oil shale show that we cannot rely on the fossil fuel industry to provide long-term jobs and a steady economy.  We are demanding a ‘just transition’ away from subsidizing dirty energy and towards a stable and sustainable way of living,” says Moab resident and CCRT member Melissa Gracia.  “That is an enormous task and yet people all over the world are rising to the occasion.  We need policies and institutions to support a just transition and we are building the people power to make it happen.”
According to Will Munger, “All across the region people are facing a similar situation. Take for example the recent bankruptcy of Peabody Coal.  They must be held accountable for their destruction of indigenous land on Black Mesa and we must ensure that the CEO’s don’t bail with bonuses while workers and local communities suffer.  We must take the money generated by the fossil fuel industry to repair the land and water while supporting local communities’ transition away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy.”

The Tavaputs Action Council includes Canyon Country Rising Tide, Peaceful Uprising, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Climate Disobedience Center and Wasatch Rising Tide.