The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering a proposal to reconstruct 5.2 miles of a roadway that intersects with Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, which is home to the highest concentration of monochromatic Indigenous rock art in North America. But some advocates are criticizing the plan, which would widen the paved highway partially managed by BLM and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), potentially leading to increased traffic, mostly from oil tankers. In just under a week, the BLM will close their month-long public call for comment on the so-called “right-of-way amendment.”
Duchesne County’s proposed upgrade seeks to provide faster year-round travel between Duchesne and Carbon Counties than US-191, the federal highway currently used to drive through the region. However, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Gate Canyon Project would be most enticing to trucks carrying oil from the Uinta Basin fields, potentially drawing up to 1,000 a day. Some are concerned that the increased traffic could be detrimental to the archaeological site.
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Kent Williams, Utah Rock Art Research Association president, worries the expansion and related construction could affect visitors’ experiences. “People come to enjoy and appreciate the rock art in a relatively pristine setting,” Williams said. “Oil tanker trucks rolling down the canyon road every five minutes with the attendant noise and diesel exhaust would seriously degrade that experience.”
In response to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment regarding concerns about the project, BLM Green River District manager Lance Porter said, “We have the responsibility to assess the potential effects of the proposal on the environment, cultural resources, and the many people who use these lands and resources.”
Known as “the world’s longest art gallery,” Nine Mile Canyon features over 10,000 images carved and painted onto the rocks, including well-preserved depictions of animals, hunters, and abstract designs made by Native tribes such as the Archaic, Fremont, and Ute people. This nearly 50-mile stretch of rock art sits in the Book Cliffs mountain range along a narrow winding road and is one of the few canyons in the area with rock art that is easily accessible to visitors, according to Williams.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the BLM to consider environmental impact when deciding on a proposal, and the Antiquities Act supposedly protects Nine Mile Canyon, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, some worry that drilling around the canyon could cause decay and contribute to pollution.
Sacred Land Film Project, an environmental justice project created by the nonprofit Earth Island Institute to educate the public on Indigenous sacred lands and cultures, notes on their website that the canyon contains not only art but also sacred land. They cite a January 2008 report, which confirmed that dust and chemicals from previous energy developments could have contributed to the corrosion of rock surfaces.
In the past several years, conflicts have arisen in Utah over the state’s natural resources and archaeological landmarks. Once named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of 11 endangered historic places in the United States and its territories, the Nine Mile Canyon has and continues to be a site of contention as federal officials plan to build the Uinta Basin Railway, a freight line carrying Utah’s oil to various refineries. In 2021, the Biden administration restored federal protection over Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. Utah Republican lawmakers have since sued to open the land back up for uranium mining.
Christopher Merritt, state historic preservation officer for Utah, told Hyperallergic that until Duchesne County’s plans are finalized, it is hard to know the full impacts on cultural resources in the area.