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Mountain Coal Co. in June bulldozed a new road -- seen in the center of the photograph -- into the Sunset Roadless Area of the Gunnison National Forest, despite a federal appeals court ruling in March that overturned an exception allowing coal mine development in the roadless area. (Provided by Earthjustice)

An expanding coal mining company must — at least for now — stop building new roads in the Gunnison National Forest’s Sunset Roadless Area, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 10th U.S. Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with a coalition of conservation groups and temporarily blocked Mountain Coal Co. from further construction of roads and drilling pads until the federal courts resolve lawsuits filed by the groups. 

The same court in March blocked Mountain Coal from building new roads for its West Elk Mine expansion in the North Fork Valley. But Mountain Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Resources, bulldozed about 4,000-feet of new road in the roadless area in early June, before the pandemic-slowed lower court could enforce the 10th Circuit’s March ruling on June 15

Conservation groups filed a flurry of lawsuits, urging federal courts to stop Mountain Coal, arguing the company ignored the March appeals court ruling. Mountain Coal argued that the Forest Service approved the construction of the new road.

Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety in June ordered Mountain Coal and its parent, Arch Resources, to stop building roads in the roadless area. In September the division modified the order, allowing the company to continue building mine ventilation bore holes and drill pads in one portion of the roadless area.

The division’s decision was based on Mountain Coal showing that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management approved of the company’s road-building in the roadless area before the U.S. District Court’s June 15 enforcement of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ no-new-roads ruling.

The 5,800-acre Sunset Roadless Area was established to protect wildlife habitat and undeveloped forests adjacent to the West Elk Wilderness Area. For years conservation groups have battled an exemption that allowed mining roadwork inside the Sunset Roadless Area. 

Mountain Coal has worked for years to expand its West Elk Mine into the roadless area, with roads and well pads to vent methane. 

“Mountain Coal’s blatant disregard for past judicial decisions has resulted in damage and destruction to one of the wildest roadless landscapes in Colorado,” Matt Reed, public lands director at Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates, said in a written statement. “We are pleased that the 10th Circuit today blocked further drilling pad development in the Sunset Roadless Area, and we are eager to see this spectacular landscape protected for future generations rather than sacrificed for dirty coal extraction.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...