Paonia Protest 4

Demonstrators of all ages and backgrounds gathered in the parking lot of the Paonia Forest Service office, carrying signs against the bulldozing of road into the Gunnison National Forest.

By Mckenzie Moore

Staff Writer

Following pushback from the North Fork community, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) has issued a cessation order for Mountain Coal Company (of Arch Resources, the operator of the West Elk Mine) to stop the construction of a road through the Sunset Roadless Area of Gunnison National Forest, which began earlier this month.

Mining activities were previously allowed in the Sunset Roadless Area as part of the “North Fork Exception” to the Colorado roadless rules. In March of this year, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the District Court of Colorado to vacate the exception, and on June 15, the District Court formally issued the order.

“With the North Fork exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule vacated this week, the company must comply with the provisions of the Colorado Roadless Rule which precludes road building, other construction, and most surface disturbance,” stated the DRMS. “As a result, DRMS issued an order for the company to cease road building and other associated activities in the Sunset CRA. DRMS’ order does not prohibit the company from continuing its current operations below the surface at the mine.”

The action came after two peaceful protests, one at the Paonia Forest Service office on June 16 and another on June 18 at the Minnesota Creek Reservoir. Protestors and conservation groups alike said the construction should not be taking place, and Arch Coal was taking advantage of the delay between the federal court ruling and the district court order due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While litigation is still taking place between conservation groups and the Forest Service, the road construction cannot continue for the foreseeable future.

“The cessation order lasts as long as the North Fork Exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule is vacated or until Mountain Coal can show they have valid right of entry and are in compliance with federal, state and local law,” stated the DRMS. It clarified that the company cannot cause any surface disturbance to the Sunset Roadless Area unless for reclamation or maintenance.

Protestors say while the cessation order is a victory, they hope to continue making their voices heard to ensure the Forest Service prevents any additional road building in the Sunset Roadless Area. They plan to monitor the situation and encourage the community to join nonprofit organizations and citizen environmental advocacy groups.

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