Utah’s Ashley National Forest is home to more than 1 million acres of pristine wildlife and countless unique creatures. But now a plan to let oil-filled trains rumble right through the forest is moving full steam ahead. In November, the U.S. Forest Service green lit this dangerous plan (called the Uinta Basin Railway), which would let oil-hauling trains run through designated protected lands and threaten the mountain lions, bears, moose and other wildlife that live in the forest.
The good news is they haven’t started construction yet. That means we can still derail this plan and save the Ashley National Forest. Environment America joined more than 100 groups sending a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to stop this project.
January 26, 2022
The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20250
RE: Request to Block Forest Service Right of Way That Will Undermine President Biden’s Climate Goals
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
The undersigned groups representing millions of supporters working to protect our climate, national forests, and communities from the climate emergency request that you stop the United States Forest Service’s plan to approve a right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest that would enable construction of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway resulting in a quadrupling of fossil fuel extraction in the Uinta Basin and degrading a National Forest roadless area. The Forest Service deadline for resolving our objections to the draft record of decision is February 3, 2022.
This new railway and the oil trains it will facilitate, will cause 53 million tons of carbon pollution a year to be emitted into the atmosphere, equal to six dirty coal plants, and otherwise do tremendous harm to the environment, including increasing the risk of oil train and climate driven wildfires.
The stated purpose of the railway and the financial basis for it, is to quadruple fossil fuel extraction in Utah’s Uinta Basin from the current level of 80,000 barrels per day, to 350,000 barrels per day. Further, because the proposed rail line is intended to transport crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries, the project will adversely affect disproportionately impacted communities already exposed to particularly elevated levels of air and water pollution.
Many of the undersigned organizations have communicated our concerns to the United States Forest Service prior to issuing draft approval of the right of way, including to the Ashley National Forest Supervisor, and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.
We were astonished by Chief Moore’s response letter to us in support of the project that characterized the railway as comporting with President Biden’s Executive Order 14008 concerning the climate crisis. Specifically Chief Moore wrote that: “The Forest Supervisor determined the proposed use of the project is in the public interest and supports President Joseph R. Biden’s policies outlined in Executive Order 14008 to rebuild our infrastructure for a sustainable economy.”
Chief Moore is incorrect—the Uinta Basin Railway directly conflicts with the President’s order.
Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” sets as U.S. policy the goal of “significant short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and net-zero global emissions by mid-century or before.” To that end, President Biden has set a goal to reduce U.S. emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030, just eight years away. Section 213 of E.O. 14008 further states that the administration “shall take steps, consistent with applicable law, to ensure that Federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution, and to require that Federal permitting decisions consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.” And, section 201, of E.O. 14008, further states that “It is the policy of my Administration to organize and deploy the full capacity of its agencies to combat the climate crisis to implement a Government –wide approach that reduces climate pollution in every sector of the economy…).
Contrary to E.O. 14008, the intended purpose and stated goal of the railway is to increase fossil fuel extraction on public lands in the Uinta Basin. Increased drilling and extraction the railway seeks to induce will boost greenhouse pollution at every step in the process: from extraction, to transportation, to refining, to combustion. The infrastructure investment solely enabled by the issuance of this discretionary right-of-way thus contradicts the President’s stated climate policy.
In addition to worsening the climate crisis, the railway would cause irreversible environmental damage. According to the environmental analysis that the Forest Service relies on, the Uinta Basin Railway would alter more than 400 Utah streams and strip bare or build on 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including areas on Forest Service land designated as “crucial” habitat for bighorn, deer, and elk. In Emma Park, a remote sagebrush valley known to birdwatchers, bulldozers and train traffic would drive imperiled greater sage grouse out of their mating and nesting grounds and, it is feared, wipe them out from the region. Virtually the entirety of the railway on the Ashley National Forest, totaling 12 miles, would be built in an inventoried roadless area protected by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and according to the Forest Service, degrade roadless area values by building five bridges and blasting three tunnels up to 2100 feet wide.
The railway will also inflict harm downstream where the trains would be headed through Colorado to Gulf Coast refineries at a time when western states are reeling from drought, wildfires and pollution caused by the climate emergency. Federal documents show that 672 to 1,809 oil trains each carrying approximately 642 barrels of crude oil would leave the Uinta Basin each year. These trains would increase the risk of fires and oil spills along the route through Colorado, including the vulnerable Colorado River corridor. The western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado would likely experience increased ozone pollution resulting from increased fossil fuel production drifting into Colorado from the neighboring Uinta Basin.
The harm from this proposed railway will exacerbate the climate emergency, increase the risk of wildfires and oil spills, put pressure on our already strained rail system and increase pollution while undermining President Biden’s goals to address the climate crisis.
We therefore, respectfully request that you protect the public interest by instructing the Forest Service to reject the proposed right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest.
Save America's Wildlife Campaign, Associate, Environment America
Virginia works to protect our public lands in the Four Corners region from dangerous oil drilling and mineral mining. In her spare time, Virginia likes backpacking, scuba diving, volunteering at Mission: Wolf, and crafting and sewing.