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Nine Mile Canyon, UT (Ute and Others) (2004)

For more than a millennium, people have come to Nine-Mile Canyon to pray, contemplate, and record their history and interaction with the land. The canyon, which is an area encompassed by a much larger canyon stretching 50 miles across southern Utah’s Carbon County, contains thousands of what most people in Utah call “rock art.” In fact, it contains more “rock art” for its size than any other place in the country, a fact that has made it a major archeological attraction for decades. However these images are not simply “art” as many Ute people insist, but sacred memorials of their cultural history and people’s survival. “They call it rock art, because that’s all it is to them” Larry Sasputch, a spiritual leader of the Ute people noted in an Religion and Ethics News story on the canyon, “It’s just like looking at our dances and stuff, that’s entertainment...they don’t understand the symbolism. They don’t understand the spirituality. All they understand is what they see.” And indeed few outside the Ute, Southern Ute, and Pueblo communities speak about the sacred significance of the land. “These cliffs,” Mr. Sasputch continues, “they’re as high as any cathedral...They’re all natural. They’re what God put here.”
Much of the vocal support of the area’s conservation has come from people like Lane Miller of the Utah Rock Art Association, who understands the place for the beauty of ancient paintings on a remarkable landscape. These organizations, though they support the protection of the area, see Nine-Mile Canyon as a place of historic significance, because it bears the remains of an “ancient” and a “pre-historic” culture. As is explored in the introduction to this project regulating sacred sites under Historic Preservation policy has becomes a frequent if not unproblematic way to protect places of spiritual significance ot Native communities.
The Threat
The Bureau of Land Management manages approximately 79% percent of the surface land in the 90 square mile, Nine-Mile Canyon area, and 90% of the mineral estate. Most of that property is leased to private interests, primarily oil and natural gas companies seeking to expand their domestic supply. A Denver based firm, Bill Barrett Corporation owns the vast majority of these private leases and has in recent years, begun the process of extracting natural gas from under the canyon. The company estimates that there is about 66 billion cubic feet of gas under the Canyon, which could mean up to 410 million dollars, 10 million of which would be directed to Carbon County.
The BLM authorized the company to begin their study of the area’s natural resources, with the assurance that the company would ensure that cultural and historic properties were not damaged in the process. However, conservationists have recently begun to question the proposal of BBC, to employ large “thumper” trucks, which will send small explosives down shafts drilled into the canyon. The vibrations of these explosions will be read electronically to determine the mineral make-up of the land. Bill Barrett Corporation insists that this investigative process will not disturb the petroglyphs on the canyon walls, not only because they claim the vibrations from the “thumper trucks” will be almost undetectable, but because they completed a preliminary identification of “cultural sites” and then planned to avoid those sites by a minimum of 100 feet.
Groups like SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), the Sierra Club, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), among others, take issue with this assessment, however. First of all, they assert, the vibrations and the machinery required to generate them will indeed be damaging to the petroglyphs at Nine-Mile Canyon. These groups question the estimation of the BLM that vibrations of only .75 inches per second particle velocity will damage the rock walls, and indeed there seems little evidence that the BLM’s estimate was made with the sites in Nine-Mile Canyon specifically in mind. Furthermore, in order to create these vibrations, the mining operations will have to expand the existing infrastructure of the area to accommodate the 62,000 pound trucks, and all the workers involved with the project. Finally, the groups called in an anthropologist named James Allison who conducted a survey of the area in April 2004. He found hundreds, and the potential for thousands of additional sites, which neither the BLM or Bill Barrett Corporation investigations identified. This would seem to suggest that the preparations for drilling did not align with the established code of legislation like the American Antiquities Act of 1906, the National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Land Policy Act, all of which specify that mining undertaken around culturally or environmentally significant sites by guided by the priority of conserving the integrity of those significances.
These groups sued the Department of Interior for neglecting to consider the provisions established by previous legislation. In July 2004, however, their suit failed in a US District Court overseen by one of the Court’s more environmentally considerate judges. In the decision, the court found that the plaintiffs’ argument did not seem to consider all of the Bill Barrett Corporation’s provisions for protecting the land, and thus did not establish an effective claim that the corporation had, in fact, violated the terms of the protective legislation.
These proceedings have raised Nine-Mile Canyon to the attention of people across the nation concerned with the protection of historic properties and archeologically significant sites. And it is under these priorities that Nine-Mile Canyon was recently listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The NTHP identified the threat to Nine-Mile Canyon this way: “This renowned area is now threatened by increased tourism, recreation and demands for domestic energy production. Although previously developed for oil and gas, the area is under increasing pressure by burgeoning demands for energy which could transform the historic landscape into an industrial zone with heavy industrial trucks rumbling through the narrow canyons in close proximity to fragile Native American rock art.” This decision, it may be prudent to note, was clearly undertaken from the perspective of “historic” preservation, akin to the suit filed by SUWA and others against BBC, and it is not difficult—note the use of the term “rock art”—to identify the NTHP’s priority to preserve the tangible and visually significant aspects of the place, and its choice not to consider the present sacred significance of the place, one that is actively apart of an historically defining American religious tradition.
The Future
The Bill Barrett Corporation, even before the decision made in its favor in the US District Court, agreed to conduct further study of the area to find more sites of cultural significance, which would guide their exploration of the canyon. Beyond this additional measure, there are no more restrictions barring the development of the area and in all probability the “thumper” trucks will arrive soon. From the standpoint of historic preservation, this exploration can be viewed both as a gain and a loss. For though they did not prevent the area’s exploration, the persistence of these groups forced the company to take much more careful consideration of the mining process than it had originally planned. They have also ensured that there will be outside attention on the area as the mining commences, testing the company's claim that “there will be no damages to artifacts as a result of our activities here...our technical expertise will actually protect an preserve these resources.”
However, from the perspective of people like Larry Sasputch, who understand the canyon to be a place of present, spiritual significance, the decision to allow mining by Bill Barrett Corporation is unequivocal tragedy. Simply the increased presence of trucks, pipes, and people in this place will render the ritual practices essential to vital, present traditions endangered, if not extinct.
Updated on June 12, 2006