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Consensus reached on drilling, protecting Nine Mile Canyon's ancient rock art

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 6 2010 12:29 a.m. MST

Tanker trucks pass petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon, which is located in Duchesne and Carbon counties, in 2008.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — With much fanfare, back-slapping and congratulatory smiles, an agreement loftily described by many as historic, precedent-setting and landmark was signed by a multitude of people with vested interests in Nine Mile Canyon.

With its 50 miles of prehistoric rock art and its proximity to natural gas fields, the canyon has for years been at the center of a tug-of-war between cultural resource preservationists and those who seek to tap the adjacent land rich with energy resources.

The West Tavaputs Plateau agreement brought together those competing interests after more than a year of often contentious disagreements that were vanquished — at least for a time — in Tuesday's signing ceremony at the state Capitol.

"It's a diverse group who was able to reach a consensus in a relatively short period of time," said the Bureau of Land Management's Mike Stiewig, who oversees the agency's office in Vernal. Gesturing toward the room full of people that included energy company executives, archaeologists and representatives from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Stiewig said the diversity of attendees — and agreement supporters — underscored a milestone achievement in collaboration.

"Not one of those people walked, even though it was quite contentious early on," he said. "Everyone in those groups stood up today and signed."

While programmatic agreements are not new, the protection plan for Nine Mile Canyon is unique because of that depth of participation, explained Lori Hunsaker, deputy state historic preservation officer.

"This is a beautiful example of how it should be done," she said. "The law is for the public because these resources belong to the public."

The plan puts in motion protections for the canyon as Bill Barrett Corp. drills for natural gas. Although no drilling will occur in the canyon, dust and vibrations from heavy equipment operating on the plateau and traversing the canyon are feared to damage the collection of irreplaceable rock art and carvings, which number more than 10,000 and serve as a draw for rock art enthusiasts and archaeologists.

Under the agreement, Barrett must embrace an aggressive dust-suppression plan and require its 35 employees in that area, as well as subcontractors, to be schooled in mitigating any impacts to cultural resources as a result of their activities. Additionally, the corporation will fund a cultural resource inventory of the area and participate in the creation of a visitor interpretation site featuring walking paths and informational kiosks.

"It's a matter of the setting we are in," said Duane Zavadil, the Barrett senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs. "We are blessed — or challenged — with a high density of archaeological and cultural resources in that area. … (Barrett) was going to protect those resources anyway, but (the) agreement assures some predictability and dependability — it is a goal post, in a sense, to mark progress."

Representatives of nine organizations also put a pen to the agreement as "concurrent" signatories, which ensures them a place at the table, even though the ink may have flowed a bit reluctantly.

For some, the agreement is a bittersweet compromise that nevertheless gives them voice and a chance to weigh in on concerns as they may arise.

"It's great to be at the table after years of asking," said Pam Miller, chairwoman of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. "This is a first step. I don't see this as the end, but a chance to make sure the details of the agreement are being carried out."

Stiewig said the BLM has not been as "inclusive" as it should have been on issues related to the canyon prior to forging the agreement.

"I can't answer for what happened then," but twice groups had asked for consulting status and twice they'd been turned away, he said.

The agreement, added Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, is an example of what can happen in a public, participatory process that brings interested parties together.

"It's creative minds working together coming up with a decision, not decisions being made by one or two people sitting in the back room with the door closed."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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