PRICE, Utah — In a red sandstone slab in the Utah desert, the low afternoon sun highlights images of snakes with horned heads, intricate spirals and strange humanlike figures — petroglyphs pecked into the stone hundreds of years ago by American Indians. The breeze gently stirs the sagebrush, and a distant raven caws faintly. Then the mechanical chugging of a natural gas compressor breaks the silence, and the canyon echoes once again with the sounds of modern energy extraction.
The rugged cliffs and dusty valleys of the Nine Mile Canyon and West Tavaputs Plateau area, east of Price, shelter at least 700 known archaeological sites. Settlers’ cabins and stage stops, spectacular panels of ancient Fremont and Ute rock art, and cliff dwellings and stone granaries show the canyon’s importance as a cultural crossroads. And archaeologists estimate that as few as 10 percent of the canyon’s sites have actually been identified. The vast, piñon-dotted West Tavaputs Plateau to the east is home to elk and wild horses.
It’s also home to several oil and gas fields, and now, another big project is getting under way: the seismic exploration of 57,500 acres, including parts of two wilderness study areas. The Bill Barrett Corp. of Denver, Colo., began the exploration in late May, after receiving approval from the Bureau of Land Management.
But the project has proved highly controversial, and raised concerns that undiscovered petroglyphs, granaries and other structures just below the canyon rim could be harmed by seismic explosions on the plateau above. Starting last September, the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent several letters to the Price BLM office expressing concern that the planned seismic activity would damage the canyon’s historic sites; the BLM has yet to adequately address these concerns, according to Anita Canovas, associate general counsel of the Trust.
And nowhere has the storm been more intense than inside the BLM itself. "They are going to damage sites," says Blaine Miller, the staff archaeologist in the Price BLM office. "They can’t avoid those sites because they don’t know about them." Last year, Miller, who has worked in the Price office for 24 years, was shuffled off the project after criticizing it, and replaced by BLM employees from the state office.
Small projects — big impact?
To determine the size and location of underground gas deposits in Nine Mile Canyon’s tributaries, specialized "thumper" trucks will send vibrations deep into the earth (HCN, 5/13/02: Energy boom’s forward guard stalls out in Utah ... for now). In rugged areas on the Plateau where trucks can’t reach, portable drills mounted on giant buggies will create shot holes to detonate explosives below the surface. About 20 percent of the area to be explored is in the Jacks Canyon and Desolation wilderness study areas, and in those places helicopters will transport the drills.
The trucks and buggies, plus other equipment and workers, will travel dozens of miles daily through Nine Mile Canyon and up a side canyon, past the rock art. The BLM has put some restrictions on the project to protect cultural sites: On the West Tavaputs Plateau, the Bill Barrett Corp. had to survey a 100-foot corridor for archaeological sites, and seismic trucks and detonations must stay at least 50 to 300 feet from known rock art or dwellings.
Beyond the seismic mapping, two other major natural gas projects are in the works for the same area. The Price office recently released a draft environmental assessment for a Bill Barrett plan to drill 38 exploratory wells in the same area and also upgrade roads, pipelines and compressor stations, and Questar Corp. plans to upgrade one of its pipelines.
"We’re not opposed to expanded natural gas production from this area," says Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "But it’s possible for the BLM and (energy corporations) to do the right thing and protect wilderness values and cultural values while still getting the lion’s share of what they’re after."
The Price BLM office is considering each proposal separately. But some argue that doing an individual environmental assessment on each project is misleading, and can make it difficult to gauge how all the energy development impacts add up.
Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to force the BLM to prepare a complete environmental impact statement to determine the cumulative effects of all of these natural gas projects, including increased truck traffic, noise and dust. "(The Department of) Interior wants to look at each of these as separate projects, but that’s not going to fly," says Bloch. "The nature of Nine Mile Canyon and its tributaries is being radically changed, from fairly bucolic and rural to heavily industrialized."
Federal District Judge Emmet Sullivan recently upheld an informal agreement that Bill Barrett Corp. would perform additional archaeological surveys along the canyon rims, and he’s expected to issue a final ruling on the suit by July 21. But Blaine Miller, the BLM archaeologist, says that’s not enough. He thinks that an environmental impact statement is required, regardless.
BLM staff shuffling
For more than two decades, Miller has been both a member of and a substitute BLM representative on the Nine Mile Coalition, a group of environmentalists, hunters, ATV users and BLM staff formed to protect and preserve the canyon.
Both Miller and BLM recreation planner Dennis Willis, another BLM representative on the Nine Mile Coalition, reviewed an early version of an environmental analysis last year for the Seven Wells Project, another Bill Barrett Corp. proposal for drilling exploratory wells in Nine Mile Canyon itself. The staffers pointed out potential flaws with the project’s approach to protecting cultural resources, but neither they nor the rest of the BLM staff were allowed to comment on the final version of the analysis.
"That document should have never gone to the street," says Miller. The project was later withdrawn by the Price BLM office after strong public opposition.
BLM Field Office Manager Patrick Gubbins, who came to the Price office in September 2002 after being promoted from a BLM field management position in South Dakota, removed Miller from all Nine Mile Canyon-related projects and ordered both him and Willis not to speak to the press about the projects. In Miller’s case, Gubbins cited a conflict of interest caused by his membership in the Coalition, although Willis had a membership as well. Miller followed the recommendations of the Utah BLM ethics officer to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest — acting as a BLM representative on the coalition only with written permission — but the BLM did not reinstate him on the seismic project.
Instead, Gubbins brought in archaeologists from the Salt Lake City BLM office to inventory cultural sites and consult with Indian tribes. Asked about the switch, he will say only that he "is not able to comment on personnel issues." (The BLM Utah state office also refused to comment.)
"Blaine knows that resource better than anyone else. It didn’t make any sense," says Layne Miller, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Foundation and no relation to Blaine. Steve Hansen, chairman of the Nine Mile Coalition, says, "They felt like having him work on these projects would trip up their ability to get the permits issued."
Miller says he wasn’t trying to stop the project, just to make sure that all of the potential impacts on historic and cultural sites were identified so they could be mitigated. "It’s a no-win situation" for those who work for the BLM, he says. "No matter which side you’re on, you’re accused of selling your soul one way or the other: Either you’re a yes-man for the Bush administration, or you’re against oil and gas."
The author, a former HCN intern, writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.
Bureau of Land Management, Price office, 435-636-3600
Nine Mile Canyon Coalition http://ninemilecanyoncoalition.org, 801-891-4540.