A proposed natural gas project on the Tavaputs Plateau could generate millions in mineral lease royalties and revenues for Utah.
But getting the gas out of the ground could cost Utah some of the state's premier archaeological resources.
Conservationists assert that the loose application of federal regulations in the canyon below the plateau will compromise Nine Mile's ancient rock art gallery.
"We're not trying to stop the drilling," said Steve Tanner of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. "We're just trying to get a responsible program."
At least 26 conservation groups have signed a letter addressed to the United States Bureau of Land Management expressing dissatisfaction with the agency's programmatic intent and call for extended protection to Nine Mile Canyon's archaeology.
Of primary concern is the ongoing exploratory work in the canyon by the Bill Barrett Corporation's West Tavaputs Natural Gas Full Field Development. While there are other operators, BBC has proposed to drill seven times the existing number of wells on 137,930 acres of BLM land.
"Sites have been damaged by the effects of this development already," said Jerry Spangler, of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. "At least one historic site has been destroyed completely."
That damage has purportedly occurred despite existing federal regulation to protect cultural properties.
The BLM has partnered with conservation groups to protect Nine Mile Canyon in the past, but the working relationship has been sporadic.
"The initial process began in 1971, with the writing of a Nine Mile Canyon archaeological district nomination for the National Register of Historic Places." said Spangler. "The agency was supportive at first. But after a while the process stalled."
After momentum lagged for a historic district nomination, conservationists picked up the effort.
In 2004, the coalition hired Spangler's firm to re-draft the nomination.
"The district follows the contours of the canyon bottom and side slopes covering over 47,000 acres and more than 800 archaeological sites," said Spangler. "It was completed in February, submitted to the state and now on its way to Washington, D.C."
Spangler explained that the archaeological district status will offer no more protection to Nine Mile Canyon than exists currently. That's because federal law mandates the federal agency to protect cultural properties on lands they manage.
"The law requires that the BLM consider the direct and indirect effect that a projects like the Tavaputs drilling will have on cultural resources," said Spangler. "Designating Nine Mile Canyon an archaeological district will not shut down the drilling nor is it intended to."
"But the nomination will provide a platform to get grants for the protection of fragile resources in the canyon," said Tanner. "We've been after this district nomination for years, but the BLM has dragged its feet."
The nomination includes 50 kilometers of Nine Mile Canyon Creek - from the confluence with the Green River almost to the mouth of Big Sulphur Canyon - and 10 kilometers of Dry Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon. Nominated areas includes 1 kilometer on either side of the canyon bottom.
State historic preservation officer Wilson Martin recently contacted officials in Carbon, Uintah and Duchesne counties asking for comments.
Martin has invited the counties directly affected by the expanded drilling to address the Nine Mile Canyon nomination at the annual meeting of the board on June 19.
Much of the problem concerns the road on the canyon bottom, which is the only transportation artery for gas fields on the plateau, according to the conservation groups. On any given day, the road is choked with heavy field truck traffic raising dust and rattling rock walls.
Measures taken to control dust with magnesium chloride have altered the patina of the rock art panels, which may affect their preservation.
The NMCC states that dust, chemical erosion and vandalism threaten the archaeological sites and there is an urgent need for their protection.
In an article published last month in the Utah Rock Art Research Association, Troy Scotter stated that the BLM "has abrogated its responsibilities with respect to protection of cultural resources...in the Nine Mile Canyon."
BBC, although contacted for comment, did not respond. However, several advertisements published by the company in the Vernal Express, Uintah Basin Standard and Sun Advocate indicate BBC wishes to pursue the letter of the law in protecting cultural resources. That includes the company's stated support of alternative E, the preferred alternative of the BLM's environmental impact statement completed in connection with the BBC drilling proposal.
The EIS preferred alternative evaluates transportation impacts on the canyon floor and recommends restricting drilling-related traffic from certain areas.
Other EIS measures recommend that operators reduce redundant traffic, but the canyon alignment was retained as the primary access.
"In my opinion, there are options that allow for both oil and gas development and preservation of cultural resources. Paving the road ... and developing different access routes," writes Scotter
Bill Barrett and several conservation groups contributed to the preservation of one site more than three years ago.
"The road has been moved in front of at least one rock art panel, the Great Hunt Panel," said Spangler. "However, the site is located on state land, SITLA property. They closed off the old access underneath the panel and moved the road meters away to protect the site."
Re-alignment and road paving could prevent additional damage, according to the preservation groups.
Spangler recommends that the BLM, BBC, other operators and conservationists cooperate in developing a cultural information area similar to Pintado Canyon. Pintado Canyon is located outside Rangely, Colo.
The Pintado Canyon Archaeological District includes paved roads, pullouts, protective fencing and interpretive signs that offer a self-guided auto tour for rock art enthusiasts.
The district was developed with the cooperation of the BLM, private groups and industry representatives.
Spangler suggests the nomination of Nine Mile Canyon as a historic district is the first step in duplicating protections at Pintado Canyon.
"It's a no brainer," said Tanner, speaking of needed historic preservation measures. "But by the time the BLM get this thing nominated, there won't be anything left to protect."