A number of issues were included on the meeting agenda of the Nine Mile advisory committee last Thursday. But one topic dominated the meeting: a proposal by Commissioner Bill Krompel for Carbon and Duchesne County to proceed with a plan to begin the process of redesigning the road through the canyon so that eventually it will be a paved access from Wellington to Myton.
"Right now, there are 70 miles of road there with 13 miles of it paved on the Carbon side of the county line," said Krompel. "On the Duchesne side, there are about four miles paved. We have 53 miles of unimproved road on that route." Nine Mile Canyon has hit the national scene in the last several years. And when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the canyon to its top 11 endangered sites in summer 2004, the pressure to do some things to improve the canyon has become even greater.
While tourists are not coming in droves to Nine Mile, there is a marked increase in the traffic in the canyon.
Along with the passenger vehicle increase, industrial traffic has also grown as the gas/oil and logging industry have built their operations in the area. That pressure and exposure has led to more recommendations and suggestions on how to improve a road that most agree has some difficult safety and access issues.
In attendance at the meeting on Thursday were representatives from Congressman Jim Matheson's office, Senator Bob Bennett's office and officials from Duchesne County.
Krompel pointed out that Carbon personnel had previously met with Duchesne officials and determined something needed to be done.
The Carbon commissioner also said Grand County had interests in seeing the road improved because access through the canyon directly affects traffic and tourism in their area.
"One approach to this is to get some technical help from engineers as well as people from the two counties' road departments, develop some estimates as to the costs and then to go after funding," said Krompel. "In the past, there have been proposals to do this various pieces at a time. But the approach we have used in the past, like the Carbon County Airport projects and the upcoming Carbonville Road work, to go after everything we need at once and do it right from the beginning has been very successful. I would like to see us do that same kind of thing here."
Krompel then laid out the background for such a project explaining the following points.
The Nine Mile Canyon/Gate Canyon Road is a regional road that serves Uintah, Carbon, Duchesne, Grand and Emery counties.
The road was originally built by buffalo soldiers in 1886 and the state owned it as State Road 53 from 1910 to 1969.
In 1969 ownership was turned over to Duchesne and Carbon County. However, as with many older state roads in many places, it doesn't have a clear deeded right of way. Many are just prescriptive ROWs (meaning they have been used by the general public for travel for at least 10 years).
The road passes through large amounts of both public and private lands, about 60 percent of it in private hands.
The road has taken on new duties in the past few years. Beside the traditional uses of canyon residents, agriculture and tourism, it now also handles heavy industrial traffic as well. Research on both the geology and the cultural resources in the canyon has also impacted traffic levels. Overall the road fits the qualities of what is called an energy impacted road.
Future projections show the growth of traffic on the road is inevitable.
"We could just keep the road the way it is, as some have suggested," stated Krompel. "But that is just not a very good option."
Commissioners from both counties had agreed that some kind of preliminary study would be a good idea, so Carbon contacted an engineering firm it has used for many other projects to ask for help. The firm, Creamer and Nobel, had two representatives at the meeting and they passed out an initial study that outlined the kind of road that could be built and the projected costs for that construction.
"I think what needs to be addressed first are the safety hazards," said Reid Noble. "Then we need to look at that areas around the ranch homes and the archaeological sites. Then we need to address the areas where the road needs realignment."
Krompel pointed out that when he spoke with the engineers he had emphasized that the counties both wanted a good road with large shoulders so people could pull over if they had a flat tire or wanted to look at something.
"The preliminary concepts we have come up with here only address moderate traffic," stated Noble. "With very heavy truck traffic it may have to be improved."
Based on the concepts, the engineers estimated the total cost to bring the section of the road in Carbon County to fruition would be $4,393,410. On the Duchesne side of the line, the costs for road construction are estimated to be $2,211,070.
"We have not been very active in the Nine Mile process," said Duchesne County Commissioner Larry Ross. "But we do want to become more involved."
Ross pointed out that Gate Canyon (the canyon leading to Myton from Nine Mile) is mostly in the hands of the State Institutional Trust Lands, and that could pose some funding options as well.
"The point is that the safety and dust issues need to be fixed and I would like to see it done now rather than later and done correctly as well," said Ross. "With Gate Canyon if the road is not engineered and built correctly one bad thunderstorm could damage it."
That point was also taken up by Ben Mead who owns a ranch and campground in Nine Mile.
"There are places where the road has been smoothed out over the years so that traffic can travel over it more easily," said Mead. "But the problem is that when it was smoothed out it took away the natural drainages and now when a storm comes the water, rocks, mud and debris run down the road and often right into the fields. I am still cleaning up debris in one of my fields that came from a large storm last year. Small 24 inch culverts will not be the answer, they would get plugged. It needs a well designed drainage system with eight to 10 foot culverts or deep dips with concrete bottoms."
Ross pointed out that he was sure there were people who would not like to see the canyon have pavement but between the dust and the safety problems, that is what it would take to solve the problems on the road.
"That road improvement will definitely bring more people there," said Ross. "But it can't be just an improvement on the Nine Mile side of the road, but all of it. That will allow the economic impact to spread to the region."
Don Hamilton, who represented some of the gas industry interests at the meeting said he was all for paving the road but he was concerned about one thing.
"The speed on that road needs to be kept down regardless of the way the road is engineered," he stated.
Committee co-chair Steve Tanner, who represents the Nine Mile Coalition on the committee also told the engineers that any road in the canyon would have to be just right to add to the nature of the passage.
"A wide road in that canyon would not work with what the experience of it should be," he said. "It should be meandering road that keeps traffic speeds down. I think if people want to race through it to get somewhere they ought to go around."
Noble agreed, saying that in his mind speeds on the road should never exceed 25 to 30 miles per hour.
"It's not our intention to straighten every thing out," he said.
In a recent meeting with Utah's United States Bureau of Land Management officials, Krompel said he was told that if such a road was put in, the BLM would supply funding for the Carbon County Sheriff's Office to place a full time officer in the canyon. That would add an enforcement arm to the designed highway.
"The point is either we get ahead of it or there will be major problems out there," he stated.
Pam Miller from the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum said everyone needs to keep in mind that the purposes of the road have changed greatly over the years, with the change from almost all industrial and agriculture to more tourism based traffic.
"Those uses require different needs and different standards," she said. "We must also be sure we take into consideration the natural forces at work in the canyon."
One major obstacle to rebuilding the road is funding.
"We will be looking for funding from many different places," said Ross. "Our congressional delegation can help us with some of that."
Mike Reberg, state director for Matheson's office, said he thought the plan sounded good and time was of the essence.
"My immediate reaction is that you can build this together," he stated. "There are new opportunities in the transportation authorization plan that is in congress. But the sooner you have the detailed plan on this the better."
It was suggested that all groups concerned or that would be involved in the process have a place at the table to input information.
Pat Gubbins, Price BLM field manager, indicated that the more partners for planning the project, the better. He said it would also be better to spread out the funding options. Suggestion ranged from seeking funding from the Utah Department of Transportation to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Based on the comments at the end of the meeting most people in the room seem to think this development was almost inevitable, yet the many details still need to be worked out.
"It's important that we define the issues and needs from many points of view so that everyone involved can buy into the process," concluded Noble.