Landmark deal reached to save Nine Mile's rock art riches

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A wide coalition of interests -- including conservationists, tribal leaders, land regulators and a natural-gas developer -- has reached an agreement that could curtail the fight over damage to rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, state and federal officials announced Tuesday.

The document, scheduled for signing Jan. 5, outlines how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposes to protect pictographs and petroglyphs created by Puebloan ancestors who lived throughout the Southwest more than 700 years ago.

A year of negotiations, which included previously excluded groups and tribes, focuses on how to minimize harm to the rock art caused by industrial traffic on the canyon's narrow dirt road that serves natural-gas development on the West Tavaputs Plateau east of Price.

"This agreement represents the kind of solution that can emerge when we successfully bring together groups with varied perspectives to find common ground," Selma Sierra, BLM's Utah director, said Tuesday in a statement. "Collaboration like this helps us effectively meet the challenge of managing public lands for multiple uses."

Attempts to protect the canyon date back decades, but heated up when Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. in 2004 proposed full-field development of West Tavaputs by drilling 800 more wells on top of the 100 or so already in production.

Conservationists long have alleged the dust big-rig trucks kick up and the chemicals used to suppress it have fouled the air and corroded the rock panels.

The BLM's draft EIS on Bill Barrett's proposal, released in February 2008, drew intense opposition, including admonitions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation due to the study's lack of air-quality analyses and inattention to traffic-related harm to the rock art.

Further action on the EIS stalled amid the Bush administration's push to drill the West, a widely disputed oil and gas lease sale a political activist disrupted last December and lawsuits filed by conservationists, oil and gas industry representatives and three Utah counties.

Late last year, the BLM decided to bring into negotiations tribes, conservation groups and historic-preservation organizations as "consulting parties" for the agency's environmental studies.

That status allowed the groups, including the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, three Utah counties, four tribal nations and the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, more say in the agency's ultimate decision on Bill Barrett's application.

Utah's Historic Preservation Office, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and Carbon and Duchesne counties officially will sign the document.

The Ute Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, the Southern Paiute Tribe, the state Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will sign as concurring parties.

Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Lori Hunsaker called the deal "a really great resolution" to the polarized fights over canyon access and protection.

"Hopefully," she said, "this is the dawn of a new transparent era."

Steve Bloch, conservation director and attorney for SUWA, said the accord would parallel but not replace the final EIS, although it could be used as evidence of efforts to reduce development-related damage.

"The agreement is a good step," he said, "to make sure the rock art is protected,."

Bill Barrett and Nine Mile Canyon Coalition representatives could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Earlier this month, 63 rock-art sites, a tiny fraction of the 10,000 archaeologists say are in the canyon, were added to the National Register of Historic Places, marking the first time in decades the BLM moved to include Nine Mile archaeological sites on the register.

Agreement highlights

» Bill Barrett will fund all cultural-resources fieldwork, analysis, monitoring, data recovery, reporting, curation, rock-art conservation and other actions to protect the art except for the 63 sites now registered as historic places.

» The BLM will continue to consult with the concurring parties and the tribes regarding sites with religious and cultural significance. The agency also will continue to study industrial dust's effects on rock art in Nine Mile Canyon and how to remediate any damage.

» Because the Hopi Tribe has expressed concerns regarding traditional use of the West Tavaputs Plateau, the BLM will complete an ethnographic study of Hopi use of the region. The study's results will be released only to the Hopi Tribe.

» Bill Barrett will pay for BLM's visitor-interpretation sights, including parking, walking paths, signs or information kiosks. Priority sites include First Site, Owl Panel, the Great Hunt Panel, Rasmussen Cave, Daddy Canyon and Gate Canyon's historic road.

» The BLM will obtain easements from willing private-land owners for development of an additional two to four interpretive sites, including the Long Neck Sheep and Balanced Rock sites.

Source: BLM