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A deal to preserve rock art in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon gets mixed reviews


Rock-art hunting scene in Nine Mile canyon (Scott Catron/Wikimedia Commons)

One day in 2004, before the battle lines over Utah's Nine Mile Canyon had hardened, before the world-renowned rock art destination would be turned into an industrial zone, the opposing sides met for lunch at a Denver country club. In attendance was Bill Barrett Sr., the legendary wildcatter who had come out of retirement to bet big on elusive natural gas deposits buried deep in the plateau above the canyon.

"It was a cordial lunch," recalls Barbara Pahl, a lawyer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose regional office in downtown Denver is around the corner from the Bill Barrett Corporation. The Trust, along with other groups, had waged an unsuccessful legal battle to keep Barrett out of Nine Mile Canyon, which is 90 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Often referred to as "the world's longest art gallery," the canyon (which is really 78 miles long) contains tens of thousands of prehistoric images, many of them etched or pecked by the Fremont people, who lived in Utah between A.D. 600-1300.

It wasn't the gas drilling that posed a threat to the rock art, since the development would occur up on the plateau. Rather, it was the steady stream of rigs that would chew up the rough, dirt road that winds through the canyon. Blaine Miller, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Nine Mile's custodian, had voiced the National Trust's main concerns earlier in 2004. Based in the nearby Price, Utah, BLM field office, Miller had reviewed Barrett's initial drilling proposal. He warned of "significant" impacts to Nine Mile's rock art from dust and vibration generated by the projected truck traffic.

The Price BLM managers ignored Miller's assessment and gave Barrett the go-ahead to drill the first 38 wells. After the media was tipped off, Miller told his side of the story to the New York Times. Nothing changed (except Miller was later barred from conducting any oversight of the energy company in Nine Mile) but the negative press stung Barrett.

At the Denver lunch, Pahl and her colleagues wrested a pledge from Barrett to make road improvements that would protect some of the more vulnerable rock art sites, such as the iconic Great Hunt panel, on lower cliff walls within a few feet of the truck route. That concession proved to be a hollow victory. Within a few years, swirling dust clouds kicked up by 18-wheelers—rising as high as 200 feet—became a regular feature of the Canyon. Miller's worst fears were realized.

By 2008, the damage to the rock art had become so obvious that it jeopardized federal approval of a massive 800-well project proposed by the Barrett Corporation. By then, the company had drilled more than 100 wells; meanwhile, Nine Mile advocates were suing again to stop the development. Billions of dollars were at stake. The hostility between all the parties was palpable.

Then, last February, the Trust suddenly found itself in another dialogue with the gas developer. This time, though, the group was part of a more formalized negotiation, and over a dozen stakeholders were also at the table, including state and federal agencies, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a Washington D.C.-based federal agency that acts as an advisor on government related heritage issues. The objective was to rise above the rancor and see if everyone who had an interest in Nine Mile Canyon could hammer out some sort of compromise.

Those discussions, which lasted nearly 12 months, resulted in a deal inked earlier this week that some of the participants are hailing as a precedent for the way it balances energy development with archaeological preservation. At a signing ceremony in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Utah's governor Gary Herbert said, "I appreciate the efforts of so many people who stepped forward to say, 'Let me be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem.'"

But a number of critics say that the pact represents more a "sell-out" than a solution. One of them is the BLM's Blaine Miller. He's incredulous that the deal, which is called a Programmatic Agreement (PA), will allow the truck traffic to continue before a thorough inventory of Nine Mile is completed—only an estimated ten percent of the canyon has been surveyed.


Dust rising from the road into Nine Mile Canyon (Ivan White)

View in canyon (Ivan White)

"We still don't know what the effects of the dust are," says Miller. "They [the BLM] are getting around the law by signing this agreement," he adds, referring to provisions in section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which call on federal agencies to identify "adverse effects" to antiquities on public lands prior to any development.

In fact, recent BLM studies by an art conservator have shown the truck traffic dust to be damaging Nine Mile rock art. It's just not known to what extent. The deal BLM and preservationists just signed on to mandates that Barrett curtail the dust with more road improvements, which may include a combination of dust-suppression agents and asphalt-like surfacing of some stretches. If the dust persists beyond acceptable levels, stipulations allow the BLM to "to stop the trucks until the problem is fixed," notes Lori Hunsaker, Utah's Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, who helped broker the agreement.

But even supporters of the pact acknowledge that Barrett and the BLM have been down this road before. "There was an existing requirement that dust couldn't go beyond a certain height and to the best of my knowledge, that never stopped the traffic," says Ti Hayes, a National Trust lawyer who participated in the multiparty talks.

The new agreement mandates stricter enforcement using hired dust monitors. There again, though, the devil is the details, as those will be contractors hired by the gas company, instead of impartial, third party monitors.

"The enforcement is a problem," admits Steve Bloch, a lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which also signed on to the accord. In the document, one of the stipulations is that dust can go no higher than the cab of truck, and when that happens, says Bloch, "it's not clear in the agreement if steps to mitigate that are taken by the county [which owns the Nine Mile road] or Barrett."

For years, archaeologists and environmentalists have asserted that the only real way to protect Nine Mile's rock art would be to divert the truck traffic away from the center of the canyon onto side roads leading up to the plateau. That was their line in the sand. But the most recent BLM analysis concluded that such alternate routes were unfeasible for economic and engineering reasons.

That left the dust issue from all the industrial traffic as the main sticking point. While the BLM acknowledges it's a concern, and the agreement includes some vague enforcement standards, just how big a problem that truck traffic-generated dust is remains a matter of dispute. So the accord spells out the need for additional research in order demonstrate the scope and specifics of the damage.

This mixed message is not lost on the preservationists who supported the accord. Says Ti Hayes: "The PA doesn't respond to the BLM's own finding that the dust was causing harm to rock art. Instead of putting in stipulations that respond directly to the problem, it says, 'we're saying it's a essentially a problem, but we're not sure how much, so we're going to study it some more.'"

As I was talking this week to Hayes and Bloch and other Nine Mile advocates who supported the agreement, it quickly became evident how conflicted they are by their decision. Hayes, in particular, responded to many of my questions after long pauses. On the one hand, he's delighted that part of the deal requires that the BLM, for the next five years, will have to submit 100 sites annually for potential listing to the National Register of Historic Places. Although such a listing is mostly symbolic, and offers no statutory protection, it carries weight nonetheless. And for years, the BLM has refused to nominate any Nine Mile sites.

On the other hand, when I pressed him on the pact's measures for the continuing dust problem, he said, "That's the central failing of this agreement, that it doesn't deal with the road." Seconds later, he corrected himself: "I wouldn't say it's a central failure," but then he repeated that characterization a few minutes later.

Other Nine Mile advocates who are opposed to the accord are much harsher in their denunciation. "It's a whitewash," asserts Steve Tanner, who, for the last five years, has served as a volunteer dust monitor for the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, a local grassroots group that has long been a guardian of Nine Mile. But Tanner is bitter that the Coalition is a signatory to the agreement and recently resigned from the Coalition in protest. "I don't know how people who claim to care about the canyon could sign it," he says.


An 18-wheeler kicks up a plume of dust (Ivan White)

Nine Mile Canyon obscured by dust (Ivan White)

Blaine Miller echoes this sentiment, which is extraordinary, since his wife, Pam Miller is the president of the Coalition and sat in on the talks. (Blaine was not invited as a participant.) One morning this week, I called the Millers at their home in Price and spoke to each of them, one after the other.

I talked to Pam first. "I know there are some severe disappointments out there," she said. "But this [the PA] is a process and a conversation, and there's no way to force issues, because there are so many groups and agencies involved. It's also a first step, not the last step, as maybe the BLM and Barrett believe."

Pam then noted how the BLM, for years, had shut out the Coalition and all other advocacy groups from participating in deliberations over the archaeological impacts from Barrett's drilling project. That all changed last year after the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation got involved in the Nine Mile dispute. After getting the cold shoulder for so long, Pam sounded thrilled just to have a seat at the table. "Overall, I think we were happy to be involved in the [PA] process, because this is what we were after all along."

Blaine, who had been listening to his wife, next got on the phone and took a dim view of Pam's strategy. "If you're just going through it to go through a process," he started to say, before acknowledging Pam's end game: "They think it [the PA] might lead to some protection of the cultural resources down the line." He adds, "But that's only if the BLM ever learns to do the process right," referring to what he and many others contend is the agency's lack of due diligence on the dust impacts.

Jerry Spangler, an archaeologist who has spent decades studying Nine Mile Canyon (see "Dirtraker"), is more generous about the deal, which he signed on to. "I respect Blaine, but we spent a year negotiating with BLM and BBC [Bill Barrett Corporation], and we got some important concessions out of them," says Spangler, who is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a nonprofit group that seeks to protect antiquities on public lands. "We got the BLM to recognize that cultural resources in the canyon are at risk and that steps will be taken to minimize the damage to these resources."

Tanner remains unconvinced: "It's all smoke and mirrors." Still, as Spangler and other supporters are quick to mention, the agreement is a legally binding document. So if certain benchmarks laid out in the accord aren't met, then the advocacy groups can still take Barrett to court again.

But sources say that the gas company is looking to close that avenue by dangling an offer to finance a foundation for all the assenting parties, to the tune of five million dollars—but only if the groups sign a document that they won't file any lawsuits against the company involving Nine Mile Canyon.

The BLM, for its part, is highlighting the new partnership between former antagonists. In a statement after the agreement was reached, Selma Sierra, BLM's Utah State Director said: "Collaboration like this helps us effectively meet the challenge of managing public lands for multiple uses."

That made me think back to a conversation I had five years ago with Dick Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This was shortly after the Trust put Nine Mile Canyon on its annual list of endangered places. Moe reflected on BLM's multiple use mandate in relation to Nine Mile: "This is the whole problem with BLM. It has a bifurcated mission in that it exploits and protects the land. Nine Mile Canyon is a classic case where they can't reconcile the mission, at least not without sacrificing the archaeology." Time will tell if this new deal between preservationists, the BLM, and a gas developer proves him wrong.

Keith Kloor has covered the controversy over Nine Mile Canyon since 2004, writing stories for ARCHAEOLOGY, Backpacker, Science, and High Country News.

  • For more about the damaging effects of dust on Nine Mile's rock art, see Kloor's 2008 article "Dust on the Rocks" in High Country News. The Programmatic Agreement for Nine Mile Canyon is available in pdf format here.