Written by Amy Cole and Ti Hays
Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon has been the focus of National Trust for Historic Preservation advocacy efforts for nearly ten years due to the adverse effects from a series of natural gas development proposals on the canyon’s remarkable collection of prehistoric rock art sites. Today, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – the federal agency responsible for permitting oil and gas activities on federal land in and near the canyon – along with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, the Bill Barrett Corporation, and a coalition of preservation groups that includes the National Trust will formally announce an agreement that will help protect the canyon’s significant resources from further damage.
More than 10,000 prehistoric rock art images exist in Nine Mile Canyon, which also contains sites associated with pioneer settlement and ranching history. Natural gas reserves are present in Nine Mile and on the adjoining West Tavaputs Plateau, where drilling has been increasing in recent years. The National Trust became concerned that drilling, increased traffic, and industrialization of the landscape associated with growing energy development were having negative effects on important cultural resources. In particular, dust and potentially harmful chemicals were being deposited on ancient rock art by oil and gas traffic that uses the canyon’s dirt roads. Infrastructure associated with natural gas development – compressor stations, pipelines, and staging areas – was also changing the canyon’s landscape setting.
Beginning in 2001, the National Trust participated in the public review process under the National Environmental Policy Act for energy exploration and development projects near Nine Mile. Our advocacy efforts intensified in 2004 when the Bill Barrett Corporation began drilling exploratory wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau, which led to the currently-proposed development of up to 807 natural gas wells in and around Nine Mile Canyon. That same year, we listed Nine Mile Canyon as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
For a number of years, the National Trust worked with the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the Colorado Plateau Archeological Alliance, the State Historic Preservation Office, the National Park Service, and BLM to ensure that Nine Mile Canyon sites were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We organized a field trip for National Register staff, helped to fund a National Register nomination, and participated in various meetings with partners to identify the best course of action for National Register designation of sites in the canyon. Happily, we can report that in December of 2009, 63 sites in Nine Mile Canyon – including sites from the prehistoric and historic periods – have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We're hoping that is just the beginning.
The National Trust also participated in a recent lawsuit over a decision by BLM to issue additional oil and gas leases near Nine Mile Canyon, which have led to even more potentially harmful truck traffic in the canyon. This lawsuit was ultimately successful when a federal court in Washington, DC sided with the National Trust and its conservation partners, ordering BLM not to formally transfer the leases. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar went one step farther in February of 2009 when he cancelled the leases after acknowledging that BLM had violated the law by issuing them.
Additionally, for several years, the National Trust unsuccessfully sought to be recognized by BLM as a consulting party under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) for two oil and gas projects near Nine Mile Canyon, including the Bill Barrett Corporation’s West Tavaputs Project. Section 106 of NHPA 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. BLM finally agreed to accept consulting parties for the West Tavaputs Projects in January 2009, and thanks to encouragement from Native American tribes and the National Trust, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation formally entered consultation with BLM.
Through the Section 106 process, the National Trust and many other groups have since been participating in year-long negotiations about the impacts the West Tavaputs Project could have on significant sites in and around Nine Mile Canyon. Furthermore, due to our efforts, BLM agreed to revise several important determinations required by the Section 106 regulations. BLM agreed that the project could potentially impact a larger geographic area than originally identified, and for the first time ever, acknowledged that oil and gas traffic in the canyon had the potential to adversely affect not only individual rock art sites, but also the landscape setting of those sites.
The outcome of these negotiations will be documented in the formal NHPA Programmatic Agreement that will be signed today. In short, the agreement calls for more archaeological surveys, National Register nominations for sites in the canyon, development of conservation treatments for rock art impacted by dust, continuing research into the effects of dust on rock art, and development of visitor interpretation sites in the canyon.
The National Trust is cautiously optimistic that the terms of the Programmatic Agreement will be beneficial to Nine Mile Canyon's impressive collection of rock art and other significant resources, and that it will help mitigate the effects of the West Tavaputs Project. Once the agreement is signed, we will monitor its implementation and hope that it will serve as a model for other BLM projects in the future.
Amy Cole is a senior program officer in the National Trust's Mountains/Plains Office. Ti Hays is a project attorney for public lands who is based in the same office. Both have been heavily involved in the National Trust's efforts to protect Nine Mile Canyon and its fragile cultural resources over the past ten years.