Duchesne County intends to open an oil tanker route through Nine Mile, Utah’s famous rock art corridor

A renewed proposal to realign and pave a remote road from the Uinta Basin could lead to a busy oil tanker thoroughfare through Nine Mile Canyon, Utah’s famous rock art destination.

The Bureau of Land Management is now considering a Duchesne County Service District petition to drill a new 5.2-mile section of the Wells Draw Road down the rugged Gate Canyon and effectively connect the oil fields near Myton with rail loading facilities on the tracks of the Union Pacific to connect Wellington.

The upgraded road, which will provide a faster link between Duchesne and Carbon counties than US Highway 191, is scheduled to be upgraded, according to Duchesne County Special Services District No. 2 proposal will attract up to 1,000 vehicles per day, half of them trucks. The prospect of hundreds of tankers cruising up and down Nine Mile Canyon doesn’t sit well with some elected leaders in Carbon County.

“The idea that anyone would allow this type of development within Carbon County’s premier tourism resource is an affront to those of us who work so hard to bring visitors and attention to our world-renowned attractions,” said Layne Miller, tour guide for Gorges and Conservationists, who sits on the Price City Council. “To put it bluntly, tourists and oil tankers don’t get along.”

Dubbed the “world’s longest art gallery,” Nine Mine Canyon — which is well over 9 miles longer — is filled with thousands of petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls by the Native Americans who inhabited the area centuries ago. Conservationists fear that the Gate Canyon proposal would endanger the canyon’s rock paintings and other artifacts and ruin the canyon as a tourist destination.

The BLM has begun an environmental review of the project and is accepting “scoping comments” on its design through February 8th.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The road through Nine Mile Canyon was paved about a decade ago to service nearby gas wells on the Tavaputs Plateau, but that traffic is small compared to what the Monument Butte oil field near Myton could generate. Oil production from this and other fields in the Uinta Basin is currently trucked via state highways to refineries in Salt Lake City and rail loading facilities in Helper and Wellington.

The Gate Canyon project would create an attractive alternative to the 80-mile journey from Myton to Wellington for truckers going to rail terminals operated by Savage Services and Price River Terminal.

However, according to Rodger Ames, chairman of the Special Services District Board, facilitating oil transportation is not the primary purpose of the project. The primary goal is to ensure connectivity between Carbon and Duchesne counties when US Highway 191 is closed through Indian Canyon, he said in a phone interview after the board voted to go ahead with the project in September.

But Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) officials said prolonged road closures due to accidents or rockfalls are rare in Indian Canyon.

The highway through Indian Canyon is sometimes closed due to winter weather, but such closures would likely occur at Gate Canyon as well.

In September, the service district submitted a funding proposal to the Utah Community Impact Board (CIB), which distributes federal mineral royalty payments to local governments for projects addressing mineral extraction-related impacts. The CIB has still examined this application.

A previous attempt by Duchesne County to secure federal funding for Gate Canyon met opposition from its coal-producing neighbor to the south. Carbon and Duchesne counties jointly formed the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition to advance projects such as the proposed Uinta Basin Railway and bring mineral production to market in eastern Utah.

Normally, coalition member counties are on the same page when it comes to “throughput” projects like highways to carry oil and coal, but that was not the case with the proposed Gate Canyon upgrade.

(Al Hartmann | Salt Lake Tribune) Water trucks drive down the dirt road in Nine Mile Canyon in 2010.

At a coalition board meeting last year, Carbon County Commission Chair Casey Hopes said heavy tanker traffic was causing significant wear and tear on the Nine Mile Road. The road is not designed for tankers and is mainly used by tourists and locals to access rock art. His county would bear the ill effects of the oil trade while experiencing little of the economic benefits, he said.

According to Miller, Nine Mile embodies Carbon County’s efforts to diversify its economy away from fossil fuel development. For the first time in generations, Carbon County’s mines didn’t produce a ton of the carbonaceous rock it’s known for last year, while the county invested to make Nine Mile more visitor-friendly to boost the tourism economy.

“What it takes for rock art to receive the recognition and protection it deserves from local people and the state is for it to become an economic engine,” said Miller, co-founder of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. “Once the locals see that rock art generates taxes and all those things, it becomes important. And that’s exactly what happens in Nine Mile.”

The BLM, meanwhile, has resumed its long-stalled effort to develop and implement an interpretation plan for the gorge.

But the presence of tankers rushing back and forth between oil wells and the railroad would seriously disrupt the way people currently enjoy the canyon.

“Nine Mile is still one of those places where you have to be careful driving through. You turn the corner and there’s a limousine with all four doors open, people get out and look at the cliffs,” Miller said. “You know how fast those oilmen can go. And one of those loaded oil tankers is not easy to stop.”

The Duchesne County plan targets the southernmost 6 miles of the Wells Draw Road where it connects to Nine Mile Canyon. It would pave, widen, and straighten the segment that currently follows Gate Canyon’s meandering bottom, shortening the leg by a mile. Built in accordance with the guidelines of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation, its design speed would be 40 mph and the grade would never exceed 9%, the county proposed.

The northern half of the segment traverses federal land, while the southern half lies on federal trust land. The right-of-way width would vary from 80 to a whopping 350 feet.

“Some sections of the roadway are in relatively flat regions and the required widths are narrower,” the proposal reads. “However, much of the carriageway is in a ravine, requiring major cuts and fills, and therefore a wider right-of-way is required to meet safety standards.”

The project includes parking for two proposed Gate Canyon nature trails that provide access to a historic wagon road.

According to Kent Williams, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association, increasing industrial traffic could necessitate upgrading of the Nine Mile Road, which could further endanger countless rock art plaques that sit just off the paved surface.

“The same proximity of the rock art to the road offers people a chance to appreciate and enjoy the imagery in a relatively natural setting,” Williams said. “A constant stream of articulated lorries with noise and diesel fumes would detract from that experience. Nine Mile Canyon is a unique open-air museum with world-class rock art. Certainly there is a better alternative for a hydrocarbon highway.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2023/01/14/duchesne-county-looks-open-oil/ Duchesne County intends to open an oil tanker route through Nine Mile, Utah’s famous rock art corridor

Justin Scacco

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