Nine Mile Canyon


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More than 10,000 prehistoric rock art images exist in Nine Mile Canyon. Although only a small portion (about 10 percent) of the canyon has been surveyed for cultural resources, at least 830 prehistoric sites have been formally recorded by archaeologists.

The West Tavaputs Project

Important Update: Agreement Reached to Mitigate Damage to Nine Mile Canyon's Rock Art and Other Cultural Resources

The Issue at a Glance

In February of 2008, the Bureau of Land Management released a proposal that would have increased vehicle traffic in Nine Mile Canyon by an astonishing 416 percent. The increase was part of an 800-well natural gas development project proposed by the Bill Barrett Corporation. Because of these burgeoning energy demands, Nine Mile Canyon has faced development pressure that would transform its landscape into an industrial zone with heavy trucks rumbling through the narrow canyons where some of the country's best Native American rock art can be found.

On Tuesday, January 5, 2010, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Bill Barrett Corporation (BBC), the State of Utah, and two Utah counties signed a Programmatic Agreement addressing the measures that BLM and BBC will take to mitigate impact on Nine Mile Canyon's rock art and other cultural resources as a result of BBC's proposal to drill over 800 natural gas wells on the plateau above the canyon.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has been involved in efforts to preserve cultural resources at Nine Mile Canyon for nearly ten years, signed the agreement as a Concurring Party.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies, including BLM, to consult with a variety of stakeholders to identify ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effects their projects could have on historic resources. Through the Section 106 process, the National Trust and many other groups have been participating in year-long negotiations about the impact the project – also known as the West Tavaputs Project – could have on significant sites in and around Nine Mile Canyon.

Among other things, the Programmatic Agreement calls for the following measures to be taken to protect Nine Mile Canyon and its fragile cultural resources:

      • More archaeological surveys.
      • Preparation of 100 National Register nominations annually over the next five years.
      • Development of conservation treatments for rock art panels impacted by dust.
      • Continuing research into what constituents are present in various dust samples taken from rock art panels, and whether the dust is causing physical degradation of the rock art.
      • Discontinuing use of magnesium chloride as a dust suppressant, while suppressing dust using other proven methods.
      • An ethnographic study with the Hopi Tribe.
      • Development of visitor interpretation/enhancement sites (e.g., parking, walking paths, signage, and/or informational kiosks) to inform and educate visitors of the unique archaeological resources in the area.
      • Meetings to identify how a site stewardship program could be established to benefit sites in Nine Mile Canyon.

"Once listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, this agreement goes a long way toward ensuring that Nine Mile Canyon's stunning collection of cultural resources will be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "The agreement is an example of a compromise that allows all sides to get much of what they wanted. The National Trust's top priority was to mitigate the harmful effects of dust generated by truck traffic through the Canyon, which was eroding scores of ancient rock art panels. We also wanted the BLM to conduct additional survey work so we can better determine the full extent of cultural resources in the Canyon, and develop interpretive signage so the public will be able to appreciate the historic significance of the rock art. The agreement ensures that both of these important measures will take place." 

In the News: The West Tavaputs Programmatic Agreement

Background Information on the West Tavaputs Project 

According to the project's draft environmental impact statement, semi-trucks, drill rigs, and other industrial vehicles would use the dirt road along the bottom of Nine Mile Canyon to access the project site. Although this traffic would eventually decline after BBC finished drilling its wells, average daily traffic levels would continue to exceed the current level throughout the life of the project, which may exceed forty years. In the past, BLM and Carbon County have paved and applied water and magnesium chloride to segments of the Nine Mile Canyon Road in an attempt to control and suppress dust. However, these methods have largely failed in this regard as dust now obscures many rock art panels in Nine Mile Canyon. Of additional concern, magnesium chloride, a chemical known to have deleterious effects on cultural property, has been detected at several rock art sites located adjacent to the road.

In September of 2008, a new engineering study conducted by KPFF Consulting Engineers offered a win-win solution for dealing with the damage an oil and gas company's heavy truck traffic is having on the canyon's ancient rock art images and cultural artifacts. The study concluded that new alternate access routes would allow BBC full access to the natural gas reserves on the West Tavaputs Plateau while minimizing the grave harm its heavy-truck traffic would inflict on the canyon.

The National Trust does not oppose oil and gas development on the public lands. However, the National Trust believe more must be done to protect the very significant and irreplaceable rock art in Nine Mile Canyon from the probable effects of the project. Without a thorough inventory of the cultural resource sites at risk and adequate measures for protection, these activities could result in the destruction of irreplaceable cultural sites. This stretch of desert landscape, much larger than its name implies, is patrolled by a single ranger who seeks to protect the petroglyphs from well-meaning, but often destructive, tourists and recreational enthusiasts. A sustainable balance between increased tourism, energy development, and cultural-resource protection must be found or these irreplaceable cultural and historic resources will be lost forever.

Oil & Gas Lease Sales

Background Information

On January 17, 2009, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with leases on more than 110,000 acres of federal land in Utah. The decision came as a result of a lawsuit filed in December 2008 by a coalition of conservation and preservation organizations, which included the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, and Earthjustice.

On December 18, 2008, the coalition reached an agreement with BLM that temporarily prevented the agency from issuing leases on 77 contested parcels for thirty days, thereby giving Judge Urbina time to hear arguments against the lease sale. In his ruling, Judge Urbina found that the conservation groups "have shown a likelihood of success on the merits" and that the "'development of domestic energy resources' … is far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment."

The contested areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon contain the nation's greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources. These lands were recently made available to industry through hastily-approved resource management plans that have serious ramifications for three million acres of public lands.

Nine Mile Canyon is already a thoroughfare for hundreds of industrial trucks traveling weekly to natural gas wells and drilling sites located on the nearby West Tavaputs Plateau (detailed above). This existing traffic alone is creating clouds of dust and corrosive chemicals that are then settling on and damaging the canyon's fragile and ancient rock art panels.

Fall 2009 Update: US Department of the Interior Calls for “Time-Out” on Oil and Gas Leasing Near Nine Mile Canyon

On October 9, 2009, the Department of the Interior released a report calling for a “time-out” on oil and gas leasing near the archaeologically rich Nine Mile Canyon, Utah. This recommendation was based on a finding that oil and gas leasing near Nine Mile Canyon, home to one of the densest collections of rock art sites in the entire country, “will likely result in more development and correspondingly more traffic, leading to more dust and greater adverse effects to the cultural resources in the Canyon.”

The report became necessary after the National Trust and several conservation organizations brought a successful legal challenge to 77 oil and gas leases sold by BLM on December 19, 2008. The leases covered a wide variety of sensitive public lands in Utah, including areas near Nine Mile Canyon and several units of the National Park System. A federal court issued an injunction on January 17, 2009, prohibiting BLM from formally awarding the 77 leases to the winning bidders. Nearly three weeks later, on February 6, 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed BLM to formally withdraw the 77 leases – a decision that prompted an internal review of the leases by the Interior Department, which culminated in the report.

Read the official statement from National Trust President Richard Moe, as well as past updates on the oil and gas lease sales.