Last summer, Constance Silver spent a week examining the world-renowned rock art in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, a two-hour drive south of Salt Lake City. Tucked into the rugged Tavaputs Plateau, the place contains upwards of 10,000 images, painted and pecked onto sandstone walls. Many of them are visible from the curving, roughly graded road.
But the respected art conservator wasn't there to admire the renderings of hunters, bighorn sheep and geometric patterns. Rather, she came to study dust. More specifically, to take air samples and observe the brownish-gray clouds kicked up by an armada of oil and gas trucks as they rumbled through the canyon.
After wrapping up her fieldwork, Silver stopped by the local Bureau of Land Management office in nearby Price, which oversees Nine Mile Canyon, and sought out its lone archaeologist, Blaine Miller. She informed Miller that the dust was having an "alarming effect" on the rock art and "had to be taken care of immediately."
"In your dreams," Miller said, recalling the exchange. His own concerns had been repeatedly ignored by his superiors since 2004. That was when the Bill Barrett Corporation, a Denver-based energy company, began exploratory drilling for natural gas higher up in the plateau, using Nine Mile's rutted road as the main transportation route.
Silver, who specializes in restoring vandalized rock art, became adamant, according to Miller. "No, not in my dreams," she insisted. "It has to be taken care of now."
A year has passed since that conversation, however, and nothing has been done to solve the problem. Not only that, but Silver's original findings have essentially disappeared. Hundreds of documents obtained recently through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that crucial data and other supporting evidence attesting to severe dust contamination never made it into her study, which was released last February. These omissions enabled the BLM to cast Silver's report as inconclusive, at a time when the agency was approving a controversial proposal for expanded drilling by Barrett. It's not clear exactly what happened to the study or why, but the story of how it got watered down provides a window into the murky mingling of science, industry and an underfunded federal agency faced with an onslaught of energy development.
The doctored study is just one of many questionable actions taken by the BLM during the past five years relating to gas drilling impacts in Nine Mile Canyon. To many critics, the crowning insult came earlier this year, when the BLM issued its draft environmental impact statement for Barrett's 800-plus gas well project. "It is the worst document I have seen in my 30 years working in the BLM," Miller told me recently. Forbidden to participate in the review, Miller, who is an expert on Nine Mile Canyon, wasn't even permitted to see the document until it was released to the public. "There's nothing in there about how bad the dust is, what the effects are on the rock art, no attempt to mitigate any of it."
For decades, scientists and rock art buffs have marveled at the prehistoric carvings and paintings in Nine Mile Canyon. Even the BLM has acknowledged Nine Mile Canyon's importance, calling it the "largest concentration of rock art in North America."
Most of the pictures were left by the Fremont people, a culture of farmers and foragers that thrived throughout Utah a millenium ago, before leaving the area around 1350.