It's taken much longer than it should have, but the world's longest outdoor art gallery will finally get some protection from the gas drilling that threatens it.
What's at stake is the rich history of eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon. Its red sandstone cliffs contain prehistoric cliff dwellings and are etched with thousands of Anasazi and Fremont petroglyphs; the area is also home to homesteaders' cabins and stage stops. But the road through the 78 mile-long canyon provides the only access to the huge natural-gas deposits of the West Tavaputs Plateau. When heavy trucks travel the narrow dirt road, they kick up dust and chemicals that damage the petroglyphs, while compressor stations, pipelines and staging areas clutter the landscape.
Yet the delay in hammering out a collaborative agreement was caused not so much by industry as the federal Bureau of Land Management. As Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, told the Salt Lake Tribune, "The BLM was pushing the limits in denying public participation. They were dragged to the table kicking and screaming."
The BLM continually insisted that it did not have to follow the National Historic Preservation Act when studying environmental impacts on the canyon. That stance, says Pam Miller, chair of the nonprofit Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, "was a blatant disregard of the law."
Conservation and historical preservation groups' efforts to protect the canyon gained urgency in 2004, when Bill Barrett Inc. proposed drilling roughly 40 wells and performing seismic exploration on 58,000 acres in and near the canyon. Several groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, feared that the additional work would further harm rock art and historic sites. Still, they got nowhere with the BLM. Its Price Field Office, which oversees the canyon, declined to consult with those groups about ways to mitigate damage, and a BLM archaeologist, Blaine Miller, who raised concerns about the drilling plans, found himself quickly taken off the project.
In 2007, the agency hired rock-art expert Constance Silver to study the problem. Her conclusion -- that dust raised by the company's trucks contained corrosive magnesium chloride, which was causing petroglyph panels to flake and erode -- was also not welcomed. When the BLM issued its study of Barrett's plans for another 800 gas wells, Silver's findings were watered down and her recommendations not included. In fact, the agency's environmental impact statement said nothing at all about the effects of road dust on rock art.
"It (was) the worst document I have seen in my 30 years working in the BLM," Blaine Miller says.
It took the involvement of another federal agency to convince the BLM to allow conservation and tribal groups to consult on the plans. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the agency responsible for protecting historic resources from damage by federal projects, stepped in after learning that the BLM had decided not to allow the National Trust for Historic Preservation or the Hopi Tribe to weigh in on the project.
After a year of often-contentious negotiations, representatives signed a mitigation agreement on Jan. 5. Collaborators included the Bill Barrett Corp., the BLM, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, two counties, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, and four tribal nations. In a radical departure from the agency's earlier positions, Selma Sierra, the state's BLM director, touted the agreement as an unusual collaboration of diverse interests.
The accord allows Barrett Corp. to continue developing natural gas resources on the West Tavaputs Plateau, provided the BLM approves its drilling plans. However, Barrett, the BLM and the counties must follow a dust-suppression plan, develop ways to restore rock art damaged by dust, perform further archaeological surveys, and build walking paths and interpretive signs for visitors. The deal also requires the BLM to submit 100 of the canyon's sites annually to the National Register of Historic Places, something it had resisted doing for years.
Of course, challenges lie ahead, and the BLM, the counties and the energy company will have to work to hold up their ends of the bargain. "I don't think this agreement does much, nor do a lot of the people who signed it," says Blaine Miller, "But it gives them a place at the table."
Meanwhile, the BLM has a new mandate from Washington, D.C. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancelled additional oil and gas leases on West Tavaputs last year and recently announced major changes to what he called "anywhere, anyhow" oil and gas leasing. And, says Pam Miller, "There's this hopeful sense that maybe we've turned a corner. Maybe we have working relationships now -- that the BLM will listen if we go to them."
Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the magazine's associate editor.