The U.S. Forest Service said in a notice to be published in the April 7 Federal Register that it is initiating a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) review aimed at proposing a reinstatement of the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule.
The exception would allow for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in a 19,100-acre area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area. The Forest Service will use the SEIS to address specific deficiencies identified in 2014 by the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in the case High Country Conservation Advocates v. United States Forest Service.
In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent of the Forest Service, promulgated the Colorado Roadless Rule, a state-specific regulation for management of Colorado Roadless Areas. This rule addressed state-specific concerns while conserving roadless area characteristics. One state-specific concern was to avoid foreclosing exploration and development of coal resources on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests. The Colorado Roadless Rule addressed this by defining a 19,100-acre area as the North Fork Coal Mining Area, and developing an exception that allows temporary road construction for coal-related activities within that defined area.
There are three major mines located along the North Fork of the Gunnison River in this area: Arch Coal‘s West Elk mine, the Bowie No. 2 mine of Bowie Resources and the Elk Creek mine of Oxbow Mining.
In July 2013, High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, and Sierra Club challenged the Forest Service’s decision to consent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) modifying two existing coal leases, the BLM’s companion decision to modify the leases, BLM’s authorization of an exploration plan in the lease modification areas, and the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule. In June 2014, the District Court of Colorado found the environmental documents supporting the four decisions to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) due to analysis deficiencies. In September 2014, the District Court of Colorado vacated the lease modifications, the exploration plan, and the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule.
This supplemental NEPA process now being initiated will only address the Colorado Roadless Rule. The lease modifications and exploration plan authorization will be addressed in future environmental analyses, if needed.