- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

thousands of prehistoric rock carvings and paintings of bighorn sheep and other wildlife, hunters wielding spears, and warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Now, a dramatic increase in natural gas drilling is proposed on the plateau above the canyon, and preservationists fear trucks will kick up dust that will cover the images. They also worry that one proposed solution, a chemical dust suppressant, could make things worse by corroding the rock.

“They’re irreplaceable,” said Steve Tanner, a member of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, which wants industrial traffic to be funneled away from the canyon to protect the art on the sandstone walls. “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”

The more than 10,000 petroglyphs have been a source of fascination and speculation since their discovery in the late 1800s. The art is thought to be the work of the Fremont people, who lived in present-day Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada from 700 to 1300 A.D., and the ancestors of modern-day Ute Indians.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has pronounced Nine Mile Canyon “the greatest concentration of rock art sites” in the country.

But the scrubby, rugged landscape around the canyon is also rich in minerals. Oil and gas development along the West Tavaputs Plateau has been occurring since the 1950s, though for most of that time it consisted of no more than several dozen wells.

In 2002, Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. paid about $8 million for more than 47,000 acres of oil and gas leases in and around the plateau. The area now has 100 to 110 active natural gas wells by the BLM’s estimate, and the agency is proposing to allow 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 probably would last two to three years, according to BLM estimates.

As for the effect on the artwork, some warn it would be akin to driving a truck through the Louvre. Others expect the drilling to be benign.

“I don’t think we really know what the damage might be being caused right now,” said Kevin Jones, Utah’s state archaeologist. “I think the resource is valuable enough that we ought to find out.”

In 2006, the Bill Barrett Corp. agreed to pay for a study of the 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.

Another issue raising concern: the use of magnesium chloride on the road to harden the dirt and suppress the dust. The salt compound already is being applied in an agreement between the county and the company.

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