Fighting for preservation

CHESAPEAKE, Va. – Described as an outdoor museum, Nine Mile Canyon in Utah stands out as a unique public site filled with ancient rock art carved by the Hopi Indians’ ancestors more than 1,000 years ago.

While the U.S. Bureau of Land Management designated Nine Mile Canyon a National Back Country Byway, the agency also leased land on a plateau of the federal property to a private corporation that has been drilling for natural gas.

That drilling on the canyon’s West Tavaputs Plateau has created a cloud of concern regarding the industrial truck traffic entering and leaving the area.

Environmentalists and the Hopi Tribe say dust kicked up from the traffic, the chemicals used to control the dust, jarring from the drilling and exhaust from industrial vehicles are harming the rock art, also called petroglyphs, and other artifacts there. And a proposed expansion of gas production activities would worsen the situation, according to a tribal official.

“Nine Mile Canyon is a special place that deserves special treatment as a cultural resources preserve and not as an industrial highway,” wrote Hopi Tribe Cultural Preservation Office Director Leigh Kuwanwisiwma in the tribe’s review of the West Tavaputs Plateau development plan. “Because of the potential for destruction of the nationally significant Hopi cultural resources in and around Nine Mile Canyon, our concern for the impacts to those resources resulting from this project cannot be underestimated.”

In the April review, he wrote that the BLM proposal for the drilling site would add industrial traffic up to nearly “1,500 18-wheel trucks per day” and would increase the number of wells being drilled from 38 to 807. Such increases, he said, could only intensify the harm.

The Hopi Tribe requested that the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation assist with the transition from the draft to the final Environmental Impact Statement, a requirement by the National Environmental Policy Act, for the proposed expansion to move forward.

The ACHP involves itself when a proposed project could result in the loss of a historic property or damage to a property that prevents it from achieving National Historic Landmark designation or eligibility on the National Register.

“The council’s participation in the review is good because the BLM wants to protect the rock art while also promoting environmentally responsible energy development,” said Megan Crandall, BLM Utah spokeswoman.

Groups like the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance say harm also comes from the construction of new roads on federal lands that have been leased for gas or oil well drilling. These roads leave unexplored areas open to looters and recreational off-road vehicles.

“In the American West, most all land is federal land, and the lands are being developed with entire areas being opened to oil development,” said Jerry Spangler, CPAA executive director.

People enter these areas and search for valuable artifacts to sell on the black market, he said: “Looting is common, and it’s happening often.”

Few law enforcement officers are available to stop the looters, which exacerbates the problem, he added.

“With only 5 percent of the West’s lands having been surveyed to determine what types of archaeology might be on them, it’s impossible to manage these lands if we don’t know what’s there.”

The CPAA also has concerns about the thousands of ancient images etched into the stone being covered by industrial traffic dust.

“They have a thin white powder coat on them,” Spangler said. “This could have been avoided with proactive management.”

In August, The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department and the BLM.

The lawsuit alleges that Interior and the BLM failed to follow the National Environmental Policy and the National Historic Preservation acts – which both prohibit activities that would harm cultural, historic and environmental resources – when they allowed the drilling of 30 wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau.

The Wilderness Society has documented an increase in drilling permits issued by the BLM and a decrease in environmental regulations since 2001.

“We started to see, in 2001, formal policy changes to prioritize oil and gas drilling at the expense of everything else such as environmental concerns, cultural resources and wildlife protection,” said Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society senior counsel. “One of the indicators that we can track is the agency’s own records of leasing and permits to drill.”

The largest number of drilling permits issued has been in the five Rocky Mountain states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, she said. From 2001 to 2007, the BLM approved 32,926 permits and leased 14.3 million acres of federal land in these five states, with a total of 35,106 permits issued and 26.6 million acres of land leased nationwide, according to bureau records.

“The other trend is the concept that not only do we need to make everything available for drilling, but we need to make everything available to off-road vehicles,” Culver said. “What these two trends have in common is they tend to exclude other uses and damage the other resources and values of public land.”

Crandall said the BLM at no point makes a choice between one resource and another.

“We’re required, federally, to protect our land for natural resources. The road through Nine Mile Canyon was built in the 1800s, and there’s been drilling on the plateau since the 1950s.”

The BLM stopped using magnesium chloride in Nine Mile Canyon to suppress dust since it found that chemical compound in dust from the canyon in one of its studies, Crandall said. The company leasing the land, the Bill Barrett Corp., is looking at other dust suppression products.

“Our main goal is to preserve the rock art while also finding a way to support environmentally sound energy development on the plateau.”

The Hopi Tribe and others have asked the BLM to develop alternate routes to the drilling sites to eliminate the harm caused by truck traffic. However, the BLM dropped an alternate road option because its substantial environmental impact and cost made it unfeasible.