An agreement aimed at protecting ancient rock art, housing ruins, granaries, graves and artifacts in Nine Mile Canyon is visionary or toothless or everything in between, participants say, and could have happened at least three years ago if the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Utah hadn't resisted.
But now that the accord, set for a Tuesday signing at the Utah Capitol, is ready to go, a natural-gas development company, historic preservationists, tribal nations, the state, counties and conservation groups agree on what the BLM, Carbon County and Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. must do to safeguard the canyon's stunning record left by people who lived there thousands of years before Utah existed.
For Nine Mile Canyon Coalition President Pam Miller, her group's 19-year battle to protect the canyon's wonders is at last getting proper recognition.
"We are pleased we were asked to sit at the table and have the conversation," she said. "But we don't see this as the end. We see this as the beginning."
The deal provides a historic-preservation framework for Bill Barrett's proposal to drill 800 new natural gas wells atop the West Tavaputs Plateau east of Price. That could mean more than a thousand big-rig trips per day up and down a narrow dirt road that never has been and never could be properly engineered and built for that level of industrial traffic.
Lining the road, which winds 40 miles through Carbon and Duchesne counties, are walls of pictographs and petroglyphs, side canyons and at least 10,000 archaeological sites.
Although the company has taken steps to protect rock art that is considered both priceless and holy, conservationists and the National Trust for Historic Preservation long have protested the trucks stir up dust that corrodes the art etched into the red sandstone.
But, in 2004, the BLM began to deny claims that it had to obey the National Historic Preservation Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act when crafting an environmental impact study (EIS) of the West Tavaputs project proposal.
The BLM refused to grant requests for "consulting party" status from the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the Hopi nation, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others. That designation would have given those groups greater say over the final EIS.
Lawsuits and protests ensued. Then came the turning point.
In 2008, the BLM issued a draft EIS and acknowledged the project posed potential "adverse effects" on historic resources. Though the bureaucratic term might not sound like much, it triggered legally required deference to the National Historic Preservation Act and a profound change in attitude.
Cementing the change was a letter from the Hopi nation -- which considers the entire canyon a traditional and holy cultural land -- asking the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to intervene, as required by law. The council persuaded the BLM to invite several groups to new negotiations as consulting parties.
The resulting "programmatic agreement" came after a year's negotiations. But some say it could have happened sooner and averted a lot of anguish.
Wilson Martin, Utah's historic preservation officer, suggested the parties get together to craft the agreement three years ago.
"I don't know the reasons [the BLM] wanted to wait," he said. "Our experience, from the state's perspective, is [to] enter one early."
While Martin considers such pacts routine, Duane Zavadil, Bill Barrett senior vice president, said this one is extraordinary. "A programmatic agreement isn't typically prepared for oil and gas projects," he said. "The mere presence of dust falling on artifacts eligible for listing spurred this" -- and that's unprecedented.
"All things considered, I wish we'd done this three years ago," Zavadil said, adding he expects ongoing discussions. "I honestly look forward to it. It's been a revelation to us. We recognize [the conservation and historic preservation] community to an extent that we didn't in the past."
Megan Crandall, spokeswoman for the BLM's Utah office, said adding 20,000 acres to the original West Tavaputs project map ensures rim-to-rim canyon protections, one of the expanded talks' major achievements.
"It was a huge collaborative process," she said. "This agreement is really kind of a bellwether."
However, many involved are irritated with the BLM's willingness to take credit for something the agency, particularly during state director Selma Sierra's three years at the helm, resisted for so long.
"The BLM was pushing the limits in denying public participation. They were dragged to the table kicking and screaming," said Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, who will sign the agreement Tuesday as a so-called concurring party.
The BLM also is taking kudos for having individual sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Spangler said, although the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Nine Mile Canyon Coalition had a pending nomination to list the entire canyon.
Barbara Pahl, director of the National Trust's Denver office, said getting the BLM finally to acknowledge the Bill Barrett project's potential harm to the relics took the sting out of the federal agency's preemption of the larger listing.
"At least the nomination process is going forward," she said, adding natural gas development itself wasn't an issue.
"We were never opposed to this [West Tavaputs] project, never," she said. "We just wanted to make sure that by accessing the plateau through the canyon, we didn't lose 2,000 years of human history."
But a lingering question, say many, is what happens next?
How is the agreement to be enforced? Who, for example, will watch the drivers in the canyon to ensure they don't kick up dust plumes taller than their truck cabs, as the agreement requires? Who could set in motion the agreement's major penalty: denial of further lease acquisitions or permits to drill?
We are, said Miller, of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. "We are the watchers. We are the local people."
An agreement on how to protect cultural treasures in Nine Mile Canyon during natural gas development is set to be signed at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Utah Capitol's Gold Room.
The provisions include:
» Bill Barrett Corp. funding three types of studies on all 149,579 acres of the West Tavaputs drilling project area to inventory cultural resources that could be in harm's way.
» The BLM continuing to consult tribal nations regarding artifacts with cultural and religious significance. It also will complete an ethnographic study for the Hopi nation, which considers the entire canyon sacred.
» Parties ensuring that dust is suppressed to prevent harm to rock panels. Dust will be considered controlled when big-rig drivers don't kick up plumes above their truck cabs or leave hanging dust plumes. Failure to properly manage dust could lead to the BLM withholding drilling permits from Bill Barrett.
» The BLM's Price office developing a site-stewardship plan -- along with the state, archaeology groups, the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum and the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition -- to preserve and protect historic properties in the West Tavaputs region.
Note: The agreement can be amended or extended during its 10-year time period.