More than a half-dozen agencies intend to sign off on an agreement that seeks to protect archaeological resources at Nine Mile Canyon but still allows development of natural gas.
The "programmatic agreement," inked after 12 months of negotiations, is scheduled to be signed Jan. 5 at the state Capitol by the Bureau of Land Management, Bill Barrett Corp., Carbon and Duchesne counties, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and Utah State Historic Preservation Office.
The canyon has been called the world's longest art gallery, with more than 10,000 prehistoric rock carvings and paintings.
"The rock art and archaeological sites on the West Tavaputs Plateau are everyone's heritage. They are priceless," said Wilson Martin, state historic preservation officer. "But at the same time, this programmatic agreement proves that when it comes to protection of archaeology and energy development, there doesn't have to be a polarization. You can have both. The processes spelled out in federal law enable win-win solutions, and the diverse list of parties signing this agreement demonstrates that."
The 10-page document puts in play a variety of stipulations and conditions that are designed to offer protections to rock art and other archaeologically valuable features in the canyon, including dust-control measures, "cultural" awareness training of personnel and periodic reviews of new discoveries that would merit additional protections.
Under the agreement, the BLM and natural gas developer Bill Barrett Corp. are also to ensure creation of a visitor interpretation area that would feature walking paths, signage and informational kiosks.
Additionally, the agreement requires Barrett to fund a cultural resource inventory on the impacted region, as well as a monitoring plan.
Lori Hunsaker, in her role as deputy state historic preservation officer, was a key player in the negotiations, described in the agreement as "watershed."
"We know now that we can find common ground — and collegiality — among parties that have historically been poles apart. When cultural resource issues arise in the future, we can sit down together with the expectation that we can find a way to protect the cultural resources and at the same time develop the energy resources."
Aside from the "primary signatories" to the agreement, nine organizations are "concurring" signatories, a status that allows them to monitor progress and protections made because of the document, but one that does not necessarily denote support.
Steven Hansen, a rancher who lives in Nine Mile Canyon and a member of the Nine Mile Coalition, said he does not support the agreement.
"I am not happy with it at all," he said, adding the agreement is a "lose-lose situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."
He said the natural gas developer and federal agencies were unwilling to look at alternatives for the heavy truck traffic because of cost.
"There are other ways to get to those gas fields other than Nine Mile Canyon," he said.
Hansen said the only reason the coalition agreed to be a signatory is because it gives it a place at the negotiating table as the project unfolds.