The Wasatch Behind: the road to the future
In a recent opinion poll conducted by the Sun Advocate, two thirds of the people who responded voted to keep the Nine Mile Canyon road as it is. Only one-third were in favor of paving it. The numbers didn't surprise me. I understand the feelings.
For many years I could see what was happening to one of my favorite places, and I didn't want it to happen. I hoped that by keeping the road primitive we might be able to preserve and protect the canyon. But times change, and so has my attitude.
The Nine Mile road is woefully inadequate for what is going on out there now. The road is narrow, winding, and choked with dust. There has also been a lot of talk recently about missed economic opportunities in Carbon County because the road is not paved. The Bill Barrett Corporation and other drillers and vendors are using the Uintah Basin as a staging area for the Tavaputs gas field because the road is better from that direction.
The gas field is a fact of life, like it or not, and the specter of oil shale and tar sand development looms on the horizon like an approaching storm. Our nation is dangerously dependent on foreign oil, and the green people won't let us drill in far away places like ANWR in Alaska where there are no archaeological sites to spoil.
And so, places like Nine Mile and the Book Cliffs are our only option until technology can rescue us with a new energy source. That may take many years. Heavy industrial traffic on the Nine Mile road is sure to get worse in the years to come.
We've got to make the most of a bad situation. A good road will link our local economy to the gas fields. Jobs will be created and unemployed coal miners can stay in the area. And then too, we promote the canyon as a tourist destination. Many people don't find out until they get here that the road is bad and the family car might not be up to the journey.
Jeannie and I experienced that dilemma last fall when we visited Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. We were in a nice car that I would never take into Nine Mile. We approached Chaco from the south and found the entrance road to be 40 miles of dirt and gravel. Not wishing to chip the paint job and fill the car with dust, we stopped at the edge of the pavement and got out the map. We drove almost 200 miles around the park to take the northern entrance. There, to our dismay, we found another 16 miles of dirt and graveled road. How many people have experienced that same thing after taking a detour off I-70 to see Nine Mile? How many will come back?
We should at least follow the lead of Emery County. They have done a wonderful job of upgrading the graveled roads in the Buckhorn Wash and San Rafael areas. I know there is some controversy about using magnesium chloride to hold down the dust, but a lot could be accomplished in Nine Mile with a better road base and a wider road.
But then, dust is a major problem in the canyon. Damage done by dust to the archaeological sites is real.
I do hereby apologize to Layne Miller. I scoffed a few years ago when I read a piece he wrote about how dust was going to damage the petroglyph panels. I was sure that rain would wash the panels clean.
But it doesn't happen. Many of the panels are tucked back into sheltered alcoves where the rain never reaches. They are smothering in dust that gets thicker every year. A few of my favorite panels are becoming difficult to photograph.
And so, with a heavy heart, I stand behind the County Commissioners and the Recreation and Transportation Special Service District in their decision to proceed with procuring the funds to pave the Nine Mile road.
There will surely be new and different problems with a paved road. Speed is an issue, and safety too. But I think we need to do what we can to make the best compromise between preserving the canyon's unique history, promoting tourism, and developing the resources that make the wheels of our culture turn. It's time to face the facts and make the best of a sad situation.
The future will kick us in the butt if we bury our heads in the sand.