Bureau of Land Management directors in Washington and Utah were sent letters this week from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, notifying the BLM of the council's decision to weigh in on a controversial proposal to drill 800 natural gas wells near a collection of fragile American Indian rock art in Nine Mile Canyon.

Advisory Council executive director John Fowler told Washington BLM Director James Caswell that the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Hopi Tribe have both asked for the Advisory Council's involvement in the so-called West Tavaputs Plateau Natural Gas Full Field Development Plan in Utah.

Colorado-based Bill Barrett Corp. currently has a proposal before the BLM to significantly expand its gas drilling on the plateau above Nine Mile Canyon. The extra 800 wells would increase the present heavy truck traffic in Nine Mile Canyon on the way to the plateau. Watchdogs contend that current truck traffic, its vibrations, the dust the vehicles kick up and efforts to control that dust are already ruining the rock art panels.

In a letter to the BLM, Advisory Council assistant director Reid Nelson noted that the EPA's review of the BLM's draft Environmental Impact Statement raised concerns about minimizing the effects and the appropriateness of treatment measures.

That analysis, he wrote, was designed to allow for a "no adverse effect" finding.

Watchdog group Nine Mile Canyon Coalition said the letters up the ante of the Advisory Council's involvement up until now.

"We appreciate them getting involved and hope they can help with the situation down here," said coalition member Steve Tanner, who lives in Price. "They can at least make BLM more attentive to what they're (Barrett Corp.) doing."

Nine Mile Canyon, which is actually over 40 miles long, is located southeast of Price in Emery and Duschesne counties. Tanner continued Wednesday to be critical of the BLM's past attention to cultural resources, saying the agency hasn't done enough to protect them throughout the canyon.

Megan Crandall, spokeswoman for the BLM in Utah, welcomed news of the letters, alluding to allegations that the BLM has tried to block the Advisory Council's involvement in the past.

"That is absolutely not the case," Crandall said. "Their involvement is routine."

She said the council has been involved at least since 2006 when its members visited the canyon on a field trip. The issue for them and the BLM, Crandall said, is to preserve cultural resources in Nine Mile Canyon as Barrett Corp. continues to use its roads and side canyons to access the Tavaputs Plateau.

Crandall said Wednesday that the council's involvement may slow the process of the BLM issuing its final environmental impact statement for the Barrett Corp. project.

"We'll adjust," Crandall said. "Because the goal is more important than some arbitrary timetable."

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