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North Fork Coal Mining Up For Review, Again

Representatives from federal agencies were in Paonia earlier this week.  They held an open house to discuss the Roadless Rule, a defining policy that prevents development in wilderness across the state, except certain areas.  Areas like the North Fork.

In the town hall of Paonia, a crowd of people mill about, inspecting poster sized maps and talking with the half dozen or so experts.  Everyone there is concerned about the Roadless Rule.  Bob Randall is the Deputy Director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.  He understands why there’s a pretty good turnout on a cold Monday night. 

“The importance of mining in the North Fork is undeniable,” says Randall. “It’s not only a major employer for the town of Paonia and Delta County and Gunnison County, but it’s an economic driver for the entire region.  I think the turnout tonight reflects that importance.”

It’s all about coal mining.  The Roadless Rule was set up years ago after years of discussion and deal making.  It set aside 4.2 million acres of public land and protected them from any development. 

“We feel the Colorado Roadless Rule offers stronger protections, and that [allowing] a couple of narrow exceptions, recognizing important regional economic drivers, was the right thing to do,” says Randall.

An area was set up near Paonia that was an exception.  It’s still included in the Roadless Rule area but the restrictions were relaxed.  

Last year, Earth Justice, an environmental law group, won a court battle over the North Fork exception.  The Forest Service had to go back to the drawing board and go through the process again. This time their assessment had to calculate the environmental cost of the burning coal and the effect it would have on climate change. 

“Who would have thought that they would have had to analyze the burning of coal in a power plant somewhere?" says Kathy Welt. She works at West Elk Mine, the mine most dependent on this exception.  She’s been involved with the Roadless Rule since the beginning.  She was upset that the process she labored through was overturned in court, upset that all this effort was going after North Fork coal. 

“If you’re going to have coal, and coal is part of our future no matter what folks say," says Welt, "why not be burning our coal?  Little to no mercury, low sulfur, high heat value content: this is some of the best coal maybe in the world.”

It wasn’t just those in the coal industry that were disheartened by this whole thing.  Allison Elliot is a board member on the Western Slope Conservation Center, a Paonia based group that looks to protect public lands.  She says that her group’s predecessor was key in creating this exception. 

“We were able to put lands into roadless that wouldn’t even have been included," says Elliot, "unless we worked out with the coal mines that they had the potential of going into that area and putting the minimal amount of roads to do what they need to do, and when they’re done that they would do the highest rehab and help us advocate for wilderness status for that area."

Elliot says the coal companies came to the bargaining table in good faith.  They agreed to putting it under protection with the caveat that they could mine it first.  Even though vacating the exception would protect the land from development and keep more coal in the ground, it doesn’t sit well with her.

“It’s not fair.”

The open comment period for the exception ends January 4th.  All the documents for the project can be found on the forest service’s website.

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