Art and Design

The Battle to Save the Longest Art Gallery on Earth

Victory! Preservationists have stopped further damage by the natural gas industry to thousands of sacred, indigenous, rock art creations in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah.

posted on 05/19/2010
merlynne6
Scribol Staff

Cottonwood Canyon / Rock Art Panel
Cottonwood Canyon Rock Art PanelPhoto: James Q. Jacobs

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Sometimes the good guys win. Sometimes dreams win and ‘protect, preserve and nurture’ can dominate a situation. But damn, the journey can be hard and complicated.

Note the additional text behind most images. ‘Let Your Mouse Do the Walking’ – just rest your cursor on each photo and these texts will appear.

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Nine Mile Canyon / The Sun Carrier
Nine Mile Canyon / Sun Carrier Rock Art Panel (Fremont Culture)Photo: James Q. Jacobs

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The FREMONT PEOPLE / ARCHEOLOGY and CULTURE

A victory such as this is underway in Nine Mile Canyon, Carbon and Duchesne counties, eastern Utah. Nine Mile Canyon is more than 100 miles long and is accessible via an all weather gravel road. There are more than 10,000 petroglyphs in the canyon and many of these rock art treasures are adjacent to the road and not difficult to reach. Petroglyphs and petrographs in Nine Mile Canyon were made over a long period of time. The earliest are products of Archaic Indian cultures, after which came the Anasazi People, an important pueblo culture that occupied a large area adjoining the southern boundary of Fremont territory. Fremont people made the majority of the rock art in the canyon. Post contact art work includes depictions made by the Ute people, and there are images of early explorers and the U.S. 9th Cavalry. Cabins and artifacts from the brief period of town settlement and buffalo hunting in the late 19th century can also be found. All archeological material is exposed to the vagaries of vandalism by unthinking visitors and damage that derives from gas industry activities in the canyon.

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Nine Mile Canyon Petroglyph Panel
Nine Mile Canyon Petroglyph PanelPhoto: Bill Bryant

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Fremont people occupied Nine Mile Canyon between 1,000 AD and 1250 AD. They lived in a large area of present-day Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada from 700 to 1300 AD (western Colorado Plateau and Eastern Great Basin).

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Fremont Figurines / Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
Fremont Culture FigurinesPhoto: Markarian421 / Wikimedia

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Earliest Fremont groups were nomadic. Between 1750 and 1250 years ago, some Fremont groups settled down in substantial villages, which suggests that farming had become a dominant food production activity. Settled village life with farming did not develop until ~750 AD. Thin-walled habitation huts and subterranean storage pits were replaced by larger, semi-subterranean timber and mud houses, and above ground mud or rock-walled granaries. The approach to village architecture indicates that wind velocity had become less extreme. Water diversion and irrigation systems were sophisticated and advanced.

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Reconstructed Fremont Pit House
Reconstruction of Fremont Culture Pit HousePhoto: O. Ned Eddins

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The Fremont approach to village life and farming was very successful and lasted about 500 years. Most villages remained small but at least two larger village sites have been identified where the population was at least 60 people. 500 years is a good long run for any pre-contact North American culture. The disappearance of the Fremont Culture is not easily understood. Fremont demise joins the list of important North and Central American cultures whose endings defy easy explanation, the most famous of which is the Classic Maya. The onset of a dry climatic period may have made farming increasingly difficult and fostered a return to an earlier Fremont life style.

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Fremont Pit House
Fremont Culture Pit HousePhoto: O.Ned Eddins

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Numic speaking peoples, who were the ancestors of the Ute, Paiute and Shoshoni tribes, migrated into the Fremont region and are believed to have provided stiff competition for now decreased wild food resources. They may have gradually absorbed the Fremont by intermarriage and cultural fusion. The Fremont quickly abandoned all but the northern and eastern edges of their large territory as Numic artifact assemblages reveal. Ute people were in Nine Mile Canyon by the 16th century, and there is rock art dating from the 1800s that depicts Ute warriors (?) riding horses. Fremont Indian State Park in Clear Creek preserves the largest Fremont site excavated in Utah. This village had 40 pit houses, 20 granaries and thousand of artifacts and rock art panels. Fremont earth lodges and irrigation ditches were visible in Nine Mile Canyon until the 1930s.

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Mysterious solar (?) disks at Nine Mile Canyon (Fremont)
Mysterious solar disks (?) at Nine Mile Canyon (Fremont Culture)Photo: Nine Mile Canyon News

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HISTORY of NINE MILE CANYON / 1800 to 2010

Trappers and U.S. Cavalry buffalo hunters were the first white men to enter Nine Mile Canyon. The dirt road quickly became a major stage coach route and the small town of Harper appeared. Serious natural gas exploration began much later, in the early 1990s.

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Trappers and Hunters, Brown’s Basin, Arizona Territory 1908
Trappers and Hunters, BrownPhoto: National Archives (U.S. Government)

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Stagecoach at Deadwood, South Dakota 1888
Stagecoach at Deadwood, South Dakota in 1888.Photo: Blankfaze / Wikimedia

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Log cabin in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
Log cabin in Nine Mile Canyon, UtahPhoto: Bill Bryant

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NINE MILE CANYON / A PRICELESS TREASURE of ANCIENT PETROGLYPHS –

Fremont artistic expression was profound and prolific. Fremont artists painted on rocks (pictographs), and carved imagery into stone (petroglyphs). Animals, people and events often take symbolic form because in the Fremont universe, there was no boundary between the mythological and everyday reality. All was One, everything in the world possessed spirit and life force, a belief that provides a profound ethic for environmental stewardship. Deities and shamanic figures are not difficult to identify, and in the Fremont world they were everywhere and welcome. The impossible challenge is to identify specific deities and their rituals.

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Nine Mile Canyon / Big Horn Sheep and Hunting
Nine Mile Canyon Petroglyph Panel / Big Horn Sheep and HuntingPhoto: B.Bryant

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Map of Nine Mile Canyon and Surrounding Area
Map of Nine Mile CanyonPhoto: National Scenic Byways Online staff

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In 2004, Nine Mile Canyon was finally listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the United States. In 2009, there were 63 sites in Nine Mile Canyon listed in the U.S. National Historic Register of Historic Places. All of these are property of the Bureau of Land Management and their exact locations will not be disclosed to prevent vandalism. These official ‘historic sites’ include 19 rock art sites, 40 Fremont sites with archeological evidence and four sites from the late 1800s into early 1900s with homesteads and cabins. Overall, there are more than 1,000 rock art sites with at least 10,000 individual images. Nine Mile Canyon is the most concentrated location for rock art in North America

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Nine Mile Canyon / Mythic Serpent (?)
Nine Mile Canyon / Giant Serpent  Deity (?)Photo: B. Bryant

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GAS WELLS, TRUCKS and DUST vs. PRICELESS ROCK ART and HABITAT

Archeological and rock art treasures are under a continual onslaught from diverse impacts. In a misguided attempt to preserve degrading rock art, some petroglyph panels have been secretly power washed – the signs are unmistakable. Off road vehicles allow access to sites that were previously very difficult to reach and there is an unavoidable increase in vandalism and accidental damage.

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Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Reservation in Arizona
Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Reservation / Vintage PhotographPhoto: National Archives / U.S. Government

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In the 1880s, Nine Mile Canyon became a major transport corridor. Several ranches and the short-lived Harper Town were established. The full 78-mile (126 km) canyon route connects the towns of Wellington and Myton. Nine Mile Creek is one of the few regional water sources that is available year round and it bestowed importance upon the canyon. Significant rock art sites are often located near the junction of tributary canyons and Nine Mile Canyon.

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Magnesium Chloride Road Dust in Nine Mile Canyon
Magnesium Chloride Road Dust in Nine Mile CanyonPhoto: Author Tricia Simpson

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In 2002, there were only 7 wells in the West Tavaputs. Now there are 100 wells on the plateau where EnCana Corporation is also operating. An Environmental Impact Statement is soon expected from the BIS about Gasco Energy’s plan to drill 1500 wells in the adjacent region. The Bill Barrett Corporation (Denver, Colorado) has already spent $1 billion to drill 100 natural gas wells and they control 47,000 acres in the canyon. Barrett is now seeking government permission to drill an additional 800 wells on more than 500 sites and also be allowed to drill year-round in a project that could take 25 years.

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Rock Art in Nine Mile Canyon Damaged by Road Dust
Rock Art of Big Horn Sheep Damaged by Road DustPhoto: Tricia Simpson

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Complete field development of the Stone Cabin and Peter’s Point gas fields has been planned. Barrett agreed to not drill within 300 feet of rock panels containing known art work. However, they can access reserves underneath important rock art and archeological sites by drilling in sideways from the West Tavaputs Plateau to the bottom of the canyon. Another huge problem is the agreement to avoid ‘known’ art work. Estimates place the number of known rock art sites at 10% of the likely total when all are tabulated. The majority of canyon rock art is accessible and/or close to gas resource sites that are designated for development.

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Nine Mile Canyon, Courthouse Wash: Historical Rock Art Damaged (1980) then Repaired
Nine Mile Canyon / Defaced Indigenous Rock ArtPhoto: Terra_Tripper

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Barrett Company’s proposal to drill hundreds of wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau also threatens the thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins, where dust and chemicals are already corroding peerless rock art. Nine Mile Canyon is supposedly protected by U.S. Antiquities Act and is one of 70 sites listed in the BLM’s National Backcountry Byway System.

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Nine Mile Canyon – Barrett Compressor Station
Barrett Company Gas Compressor Station at Nine Mile CanyonPhoto: Tricia Simpson

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Development of the gas fields requires a separate evaluation of each well head location. When studies are done, and if environmentalists are beaten down in court, commercial production would last for three decades. Large rig trucks would make hundred of trips every week, in and out of Nine Mile Canyon. The Bill Barrett Company estimates that about one trillion cubic feet of gas can be extracted, which is equivalent to 17 days of natural gas consumption in the United States at today’s consumption levels.

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Natural Gas Tanker Truck in Nine Mile Canyon
Natural Gas Tanker Truck in Nine Mile CanyonPhoto: Bill Bryant

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The biggest problem, however, is not the gas wells and the destructiveness caused by drilling, and then transport of product in huge oil tanker trucks. Duane Zavadil, Bill Barrett Company’s vice president for government and regulatory affairs, has long acknowledged that the gravel road in Nine Mile Canyon is not designed for heavy truck traffic, nor is it properly maintained. The gas tanker trucks that would go up and down the dirt road 365 days/year weigh 40 tons each.

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‘Raising’ Dust’ / Gas Tanker Truck in Nine Mile Canyon
Photo: Bill Bryant

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The larger problem for historic preservation is the first item for road maintenance – road dust and the chemicals used to hold it down. Development of the West Taviputs began six years ago and large quantities of magnesium chloride have been sprayed on the dirt road ever since as a dust abatement measure.

In 2006, Daniel B. Khun, a freight planner for the Utah Department of Transportation, prepared a report about highway traffic associated with developing oil and gas wells in the Uinta Basin. Kuhn concluded that the summation of usual activities such as construction, drilling, maintenance and removal of drill rigs would generate a minimum of several hundred truck trips each day. In some scenarios, more than 1,000 truck trips each day were projected that utilize large semi-trailer trucks, long combination trucks and oversize tankers. This report estimated a minimum of 375 truck trips necessary to establish a new well, with maximum truck trip figure as high as 1375. In the summer of 2008, an average of 190 vehicles traversed Nine Mile Canyon Road each day.

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Visitor Parking Lot and Gas Tanker Truck in Nine Mile Canyon
Visitor Parking Lot and Gas Tanker Truck in Nine Mile Canyon, UtahPhoto: Bill Bryant

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Magnesium chloride is hygroscopic because it pulls water out of the air. It has been approved by Carbon County for use in Nine Mile Canyon by the Bill Barrett Company. Barrett has already spent at least USD 2 million on dust control using MgCl2. Magnesium chloride is a simple ionic molecule that breaks apart in water. The negative chloride ion combines with the positively charged hydrogen ion from water molecules to create hydrochloric acid. A dilute solution of a heavily corrosive acid forms which flies through the air in areas immediately adjacent to the dirt road with each passage of a heavy gas tanker truck. Realize that HCL can eat away concrete! A typical formulation used to control road dust is 30% acid which freezes at -1º degree Fahrenheit. When magnesium chloride ice forms on a rock, it attacks the micro-fissures and stress cracks created by the artist as an image was carved into rock. The area immediately adjacent to the corrosive acid ice soon crumbles.

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Nine Mile Canyon – Picnic Area
Nine Mile Canyon / Visitor Picnic AreaPhoto: Bill Bryant

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When the ‘gloves came off’, Barrett’s true intentions became clear. While the Environmental Impact Statement preparation was underway, Barrett continued to add test wells on the plateau. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, there is a ‘statutory categorical exclusion’ that allows approval of small – less than five acres – oil and gas developments without following the guidelines established by the National Environmental Policy Act. Barrett locked down dozens of small well developments around Nine Mile Canyon using the ‘statutory categorical exclusion’. To add insult to injury, the BLM sold five additional leases within the canyon in 2006.

From Barrett Corporation Annual Report, 2009, p.5: Uinta Basin, Utah – West Tavaputs; Play type: Structural/Stratigraphic; Targeted Formations: Wasatch, Mesaverde, Mancos, Dakota, Entrada, Navajo; Well Depth average: 7,650’; Gross Producing Wells: 166; Net Proved Reserves (Bcfe, 12/31/09): 324; Proved, Probable and Possible Reserves (Bcfe, 12/31/09): 1,313; and Net Undeveloped Acres: 26,350

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Nine Mile Canyon / Archaic, Fremont, and Ute Rock Art
Rock Art Panel in Nine Mile Canyon with Images carved by Archaic, Fremont, and Ute artists.Photo: Tricia Simpson

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When the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West Taviputs Drilling Program was released in 2008, an overwhelming majority of the 38,000 public comments were against the BLM proposal that allowed 807 additional natural gas wells on the plateau. The EIS also dismissed the serious impact of MgCl2 dust, vibration from 30-40 ton trucks and additional air pollution such as ozone. The regional EPA office found that this draft EIS violated the Clean Air Act because it did not deal with projected increases in ozone and dust suppressing chemicals. Finally, the head of EPA Stephen Johnson overrode the judgment of the regional EPA office and released the BLM from any responsibility to respond to these serious concerns. In response, four U.S. Senators called for Johnson’s resignation on July 29, 2008. This situation appears to meet the requirements for a kleptocracy.

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Nine Mile Canyon / Shaman Deity (?)
Nine Mile Canyon/Shaman Deity (?)Photo: Bill Bryant

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Environmental and cultural groups have pointed out several other major weaknesses in the draft EIS. Large areas, including the West Tavaputs Plateau and side canyons, were not surveyed for cultural resources. The EIS lacks information on cultural resources that had been assembled as part of the application to include Nine Mile Canyon on the National Register of Historic Places. It insufficiently considers alternate routes to access the plateau and omits the results of a major study on dust levels. Nongovernmental organizations whose expertise is recognized nationally, and whose interest needs no defense, include the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. To add insult to injury, each of these organizations was denied consulting party status in the draft EIS process.

In June 2008, the BLM approved an increase of vehicular traffic on the canyon floor road route to Tavaputs from an average of 106 vehicles a day to 441. BLM again used the categorical exclusion clause to override protests from the EPA and input from nongovernmental organizations. A coalition of historic preservation and conservation groups filed a lawsuit in August 2008. Important individuals and groups that are opposed to gas industry proposals are now included in the review process as the development of the Programmatic Agreement illustrated – see below.

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Mythic Shaman-Hunter Deities / Rock Art in Nine Mile Canyon
Mythic shaman-hunter deities / Rock Art in Nine Mile CanyonPhoto: Nine Mile Canyon Coalition News

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Several difficulties are unfolding as the brief about Nine Mile Canyon is constructed. The BLM has been evaluating each resource testing project on a case-by-case basis, rather than looking at the area as a whole. Mitigation has only been offered to certain well-known areas of rock art and archaeological sites. Defining the area worth protecting as limited to the canyon floor is to ignore all the distinctive cultural sites on the slopes and cliffs that surround the canyon floor. Finally, what is often overlooked by every side in the ‘discussion’ is that these sites are not just art but components of a living sacred area, a timeless ‘ground’ for the gods and their people. “They call it rock art, because that’s all it is to them … they don’t understand the spirituality. All they understand is what they see.” Curtiss Cesspooch, Northern Ute Chairperson.

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Sai’-ar and his family, Ute c. 1874
SaiPhoto: Thiophene Guy

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Fort Keogh, Montana. ca. 1889
Fort Keogh, Montana. ca. 1889Photo: National Archives / U.S. Government

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The situation around Nine Mile Canyon is the result of a record-breaking number of oil and gas leases that were fast-tracked by the administration of George W. Bush Jr. A Washington Post report found that between 2004 and 2008, the number of permits issued was nearly triple the number released in the corresponding years under President Clinton. In the last few months of the Bush administration, the BLM rushed through six regional Resource Management Plans (RMPs) in southern and eastern Utah. The Price RMP, which includes Nine Mile Canyon, selects only 10 percent of “wilderness character” lands to protect, and allows angled, directional drilling on these lands.

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FIGHTING BACK -

Some of the organizations that have a large role in the ongoing battle to preserve indigenous rock art and history in Nine Mile Canyon are: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA); Nine Mile Canyon Coalition; Hopi Nation; URARA (Utah Rock Art Research Association), Utah Statewide Archaeological Society, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Hunt Oil Company, and Colorado Plateau Organization.

Barrett Company corporate priorities are quoted in hidden text under the next several photos.

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Superb Fremont Rock Art Panel in Nine Mile Canyon
<img src=”http://editors.admin.scribol.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/default/files/images/Nine_Mile_petroglyphs-2_opt600x400_jqjacobs.net.jpg” alt=”Superb Fremont Rock Art Panel in Nine Mile Canyon” title=”Superb Fremont Rock Art Panel in Nine Mile Canyon. … The statement now circulating that Barrett’s web site does not mention their operations in Nine Mile Canyon or the West Tavaputs is not entirely correct; see http://www.billbarrettcorp.com/uinta.html. Their web site does display a simplified map of the operations in

merlynne6
Scribol Staff