The Art of Survival

An incalculably precious national resource is threatened in Utah.

By Reed Karaim

The splendid Fremont petroglyph panel, "'Balloon Man' and Hunters", near Utah's Balanced Rock in Nine Mile Canyon Road

Credit: ? 2000 A. Crane

A canyon in the distant recesses of central Utah is an odd place to discover breathtaking works of art. At first glance, Nine Mile Canyon, not far from the city of Price, seems largely untouched by human hands. A small ranch operates on the canyon floor, and a few cabins sit on private land off a dirt road that was constructed by the Buffalo Soldiers 130 years ago. The road doesn't feel as if it has been improved much since. Other signs of civilization intrude here and there. But most of the canyon is a place out of time, empty and wild, feeling much as it must have for thousands of years.

Yet this little-visited place is also one of the world's great open-air museums, a meandering gallery of prehistoric ruins and, most astonishingly, art. For thousands of years Native American artists worked in Nine Mile Canyon, carving and painting the flat sandstone panels of its walls, leaving images of disturbing power and mystery—carefully wrought abstract symbols, as well as scenes of men, animals, and creatures like horned snakes and floating, demonic figures. These artists created elaborate hunting scenes, sweeping battle landscapes, and even what appear to be family portraits.

Thousands of such sites can be found in the canyon, which winds for about 50 miles. "I've been looking at rock art for 25 years, and there's nothing else like Nine Mile Canyon on the North American continent," said Layne Miller, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association, which consists of amateur enthusiasts and professional anthropologists.

The canyon and its trove of art, however, are threatened by an energy project that is considerably less unique. Last summer, with the approval of the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bill Barrett Corp. began searching for natural gas on public land on the plateau above Nine Mile Canyon and in some of its finger canyons. The Denver-based firm used underground dynamite charges and special trucks that vibrate the earth to conduct its exploration. Now it's going ahead with plans to drill up to 38 test wells in the canyon area. Barrett believes there's a good chance sizable gas reserves will be found.

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