NINE MILE CANYON They're a little like doting fathers, fussing over human and animal forms that exist as pictographs and petroglyphs on rock faces near the sides of dirt roads that snake through this canyon in Carbon and Duchesne counties.
During a trip this week into the canyon, Steve Tanner and Ivan White speculated on the latest form of dust suppressant being laid down on the road as they checked on the health of Indian rock-art panels that are hundreds of years old. The suppressant is the current solution to keeping down the dust from industrial traffic in the canyon.
Tanner and White are both retired and live in Price. As members of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, they are avid watchdogs of the canyon, and they are well-known by the Bureau of Land Management and local, county and state officials. During the past few years, most of the two men's attention has been focused on the BLM, which has a big say in Colorado-based Bill Barrett Corp.'s current proposal to drill 800 natural-gas wells over the next eight years on the west Tavaputs Plateau above the canyon.
Barrett Corp. has ceased trying to maintain a relationship with the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, due to ongoing lawsuits. And Tanner is proud of being thought of as an "obstructionist" by the company.
When it comes to Barrett's ongoing dust-control efforts, Tanner and White are worried about how ingredients in the suppressants will impact the art and environment. The problem is the road through the canyon, Tanner said as he and White drove the route this week.
"This is the demon, right here," Tanner said.
Tanner describes it as a good demon for its path to viewing the canyon's stunning art collection. But aggravate the demon with more and more truck traffic, which is the case these days, and the road for Tanner becomes a bad demon, a means to what he fears is a possible end to some of the art panels.
Tourists and trucks from the oil and gas industry, which has found the surrounding area above the canyon to be rich in resources, now share the road.
Tanner likes to bring a radar gun into the canyon and record vehicle speeds, which gets him in the occasional dust up with drivers. The posted speed limit in many places is 25 mph, which people appeared to ignore as the two men drove on Monday. White takes pictures of any car or truck that rumbles down the road during one of their frequent canyon visits.
If Tanner and White are not in the canyon, they're reading about it or looking at pictures of its famed outdoor museum of etchings and paintings left behind centuries ago by different groups of American Indians that inhabited the canyon and eventually disappeared.
"It is a mystery," White said. "We don't know these people, where they came from or where they went."
Tanner and White compare old photos with newer ones, looking for damage or changes to the panels. They talk to archaeologists about what the drawings might mean.
Their efforts are all in the name of dust and how it's affecting air quality and works of art.
Tanner and White consider it their full-time job to look out for the air and art in a canyon that can on some days register hundreds of vehicle trips. Most of it is industrial traffic these days through Nine Mile's side roads in Gate, Dry, Harmon, Cottonwood and Prickly Pear canyons.
The two men contend the industrial traffic is driving away tourists, who Tanner and White say don't want to deal with 80,000-pound trucks on a dirt and gravel road that sometimes barely has room for one vehicle.
Barrett's trucks use the canyon roads to access the Tavaputs Plateau, where workers have already tapped into natural-gas deposits. The company also has its own gas-compression site contained in two large metal buildings located a few hundred feet from the main canyon road. Barrett, which owns land in the canyon, has no plans to expand the compression site.
On Monday, several drivers of water trucks could be seen dipping hoses into the canyon's Minnie Maude Creek. Because Barrett owns land in the canyon, the company has water rights and is allowed to use the creek, as long as it keeps a log of who is filling up, how much and when, for state regulators to review.
Also in the canyon this week were several large trucks with road crews working for the company and Carbon County. A recent flood had washed out several sections of road. It's frustrating for supervisor Ray Hanson, who is forced to devote his crew to the canyon road, which this week took priority over hundreds of miles of other county roads outside the canyon.
Hanson stopped Monday for a few words on how the county has spent about $1 million over the past 15 years on a road that used to belong to the state. The recent flood damage has Hanson shaking his head, frustrated at another "bandage" approach.
"That's all we can do down here," Hanson said. "We just open it up so people can get through."
He'd like to see the road paved which is estimated to cost more than $100 million or reclaimed by the state.
Hanson praised Barrett's efforts to control dust. On Monday, a variety of dust-control measures appeared to be working in the company's project area in the canyon.
Even Tanner and White could see that there was minimal dust, although they remained suspicious of the dust suppressants' impacts on the environment and on the art.
If Tanner and White had their way, trucks coming from the north side of the canyon would use an old BLM road, which needs millions of dollars worth of upgrades and extending before it's ready for traffic. That road is almost directly across from a main access out of the canyon to the plateau. Once trucks access the plateau from one canyon, White and Tanner say a loop road on the plateau could be built to connect Barrett's drill sites without needing to send its trucks back into the canyon and up side roads through the other canyons.
"That's the only thing that will protect the rock art," White said.
But Barrett maintains that building a loop road would impact wildlife and cultural resources, which so far haven't been disturbed by the company's presence in the canyon or on the plateau.
The trucks continue to use the main canyon road and its side roads, with estimates that traffic in Nine Mile Canyon will increase to about 700 trips per day if the company is allowed to drill 800 wells in eight years.Tanner and White say that if they can't stop the traffic, they at least want to stop the dust or control it in a way that doesn't harm the art or air. They say their fight won't be over until they're satisfied with the solutions the BLM, Barrett and others come up with to protect the canyon, its air and art.