1 of 4
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
Trucks drive past petroglyphs in Nine Mile Canyon. It's unclear how increased dust in the canyon will affect the rock art.

Archaeologists and the lead advocacy group for protecting the unique antiquities in Nine Mile Canyon say a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency perfectly sums up the impact study of oil and gas drilling there: inadequate.

The federal government's attention and response to a petition to make the area a National Historic District has been largely ignored, and even the EPA letter itself is yet another example of federal oversight that is lacking at best, said Pam Miller, chairwoman of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition.

"It makes me cautiously optimistic that there is some recognition that the original impact statement was severely flawed," Miller said, noting that the coalition does not oppose the gas development or drilling in the area. "What we're opposed is not knowing exactly what effect all this is having and not having any serious discussion of alternative truck routes."

The coalition has offered to hire a road engineer to determine alternative roadways to what is now the main thoroughfare for more than 100 tanker trucks and pickups servicing the gas wells. The road runs the length of Nine Mile Canyon, which is actually a 70-plus mile corridor dubbed "the world's longest art gallery" for the thousands of petroglyphs, graneries and rock art depictions there. They are the last remnants of the Fremont Indians who somehow thrived in the desolate areas of present day Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada from 700 to 1300 A.D. then disappeared.

What the federal Bureau of Land Management has pronounced "the greatest concentration of rock art sites" in the country is also a source of oil and gas. Several dozen wells had been drilled there since the 1950s. Six years ago, Denver-based Bill Barret Corp. paid about $8 million for leases on 47,000 acres around the West Tavaputs Plateau. The area now has 100 to 110 active natural gas wells by the BLM's estimate, and the agency is proposing to allow roughly 700 to 800 more to be drilled over eight years.

Traffic along the narrow gravel road through the canyon would increase from about 107 vehicles per day now to a maximum of 441 per day during peak development, which would probably last two to three years, according to BLM estimates.

Bill Barrett estimates the full-field development project would yield 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas during more than 30 years of drilling. The yield is equivalent to about 17 days of supply at today's national consumption level.

Carbon County has spent thousands of dollars paving short sections of the road to limit the dust, and the section of road that once ran right beneath the Hunting Scene Panel — it was rerouted by the gas company to give the rock art some protection. But Miller says much more must be done. If not, she fears, the energy boom may spell the end of one of the world's great outdoor museums.

State archaeologist Kevin Jones said in a recent interview that no one knows what the effects of diesel exhaust, dust and treatments to keep it down have been "because that hasn't been examined well at all," noting that the single minimal study done so far had conflicting results.

"We at least ought to find out," Jones said. "I do know what's there didn't last a thousand years with semis rolling by all the time."

Whatever oil is there will be taken within the next 20 to 30 years, Jones said.

"It's not going to destroy us to take some time and find out what effect these modern conditions will have," Jones added. "This is a place a lot of people care deeply about, where people come from around the world to find a connection to it and feel inspired when they leave.

"If we have no archaeological heritage, that would be a grand cultural tragedy," he said, noting that both science and history would "judge us pretty harshly for allowing short-sighted greed to destroy the world's longest art gallery."

There needs to be monitors installed that would definitely track movement of the ground, both from the traffic and for the concussions sent underground when the oil company does testing for drill sites, he said. The effects of that on art sites that are closer than 100 meters to the road, what is happening to panels under rock overhangs or those facing away or toward the road are all unknown at this point.

"These are all issues that should have been addressed at the front end," said Jerry Spangler, an archaeologist and founder of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a Utah-based nonprofit created in 2005 to foster the protection and preservation of archaeological resources throughout the West.

"There is no baseline data behind any of the decisions," said Spangler, who along with his wife, Donna Kemp Spangler, has written two books and dozens of research reports on the area and is currently researching and cataloging hundreds of recently discovered art panels, ancient granaries and villages.

"The closest baseline we have is a handful of photographs taken by scientists and interested volunteers between 1989 and 1993," he said. "Most of us can't appreciate the incredible amount of time we're dealing with here. Our life spans are short and our cultural memory is 300 years — from our national consciousness in Boston or back to 1847 here. This is just as significant and scientifically important to knowing who we are."

In 2006, the Bill Barrett Corp. agreed to pay for a study of the possible effects of the dust. Constance Silver of Preservar Inc., which conducted the study, said she found that kicked-up dust that lands on a rock art panel creates "a very serious conservation problem."

At one of the canyon's most famous spots — a scene depicting a great hunt — dust clouds from passing trucks travel more than 100 feet and linger in the air for at least 10 minutes before settling on the rock carvings, she found.

Company spokesman Jim Felton defended the project, saying if drilling does not go forward, the implications will be "immediate, dire and drastic" given the demand for energy in the U.S. The project would also create nearly 1,000 jobs in the area, according to the BLM.

The oil company reports spending $2 million on improving roads in the area, including rounding out curves to make them safer and building a route that moves traffic away from one of the most famous panels. By the time the project is complete, the rock art won't be any worse off and visitors will have a better experience, Felton told The Associated Press last week.

"There are those out there trying to create a false paradox, that you must either protect the artifacts or allow for oil and gas development," Felton said. "They're not mutually exclusive deals."

According to the Castle Country Regional Information Center in Price, during the past two years visitor interest and inquiries about visiting the canyon have declined significantly.

Contributing: The Associated Press

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com