Petroglyph protection, at last


The world's longest outdoor art gallery will finally get some protection from the gas drilling that threatens it. Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, some 78 miles long, contains hundreds of homesteaders’ cabins, stage stops, cliff dwellings and granaries, and more than 10,000 Anasazi and Fremont petroglyphs.

For two decades, conservationists and historians have sought protection for the canyon, but the fight heated up in 2004, when energy company Bill Barrett Inc. proposed drilling roughly 40 wells and performing seismic exploration on 58,000 acres in and near the canyon. The work, it was feared, would harm rock art and historic sites, but the BLM archaeologist who raised concerns about the drilling plans was quickly transferred off the project (see our story "BLM gags an archaeologist to get out the gas").

Then, in 2008, after Barrett proposed another 800 wells, a rock art expert wrote a damning report about how corrosive dust kicked up by the company's trucks was damaging petroglyph panels. But the BLM watered down the report's conclusions and ignored the expert's recommendations (see our followup story "Dust on the rocks").

Yesterday, after a year of contentious negotiations, representatives from energy companies, the BLM, the nonprofit Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, area tribes, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance finally signed a landmark agreement meant to safeguard the canyon from the worst effects of energy development. The Deseret News reports:

Under the agreement, Barrett must embrace an aggressive dust-suppression plan and require its 35 employees in that area, as well as subcontractors, to be schooled in mitigating any impacts to cultural resources as a result of their activities. Additionally, the corporation will fund a cultural resource inventory of the area and participate in the creation of a visitor interpretation site featuring walking paths and informational kiosks.
Selma Sierra, the state's BLM director, is touting the agreement as an unusual collaboration of diverse interests. But, as the AP notes,
Sierra had resisted consulting such a wide variety of interests for years, which served only to delay Bill Barrett’s project, said Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, an organization devoted to protecting prehistoric sites.

While the agreement is a huge achievement, the biggest challenge lies ahead, as the BLM and Bill Barrett Corp. must both hold up their ends of the bargain. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

The conservation and historic-preservation groups that pushed hardest to protect Nine Mile Canyon were cautious as they sized up their accomplishment, which Bill Barrett Senior Vice President Duane Zavadil has called unprecedented.

"The mechanism is in place," said Pam Miller, president of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. "But everyone has to do their part."

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