After more than a year of negotiations, a landmark agreement to protect Utah’s cultural resources while permitting “orderly and environmentally responsible” natural gas development on the West Tavaputs Plateau near Nine Mile Canyon by Bill Barrett Corp. is to be finalized Jan. 5 with a signing ceremony at the state capitol in Salt Lake City, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Utah said Tuesday.

Last year three environmental groups sued BLM for approving 25 natural gas wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau (see Daily GPI, Aug. 8, 2008). The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and The Wilderness Society, contended that the wells should have received a more thorough review before they were approved.

Barrett wanted to drill gas wells on 138,000 acres in the northeast portion of Carbon County, UT, and the long-term development plan called for drilling up to 807 new wells over eight years. The lawsuit contended that the increased drilling would have an adverse affect on Nine Mile Canyon, an archaeological discovery that is home to more than 10,000 known ancient Puebloan rock-art images and ruins.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May also voiced concern about BLM’s plan to allow drilling in the region until an environmental study was conducted detailing air quality impacts (see Daily GPI, May 30, 2008). Then in October 2008 the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, launched an inquiry into the way the BLM may have bypassed some environmental reviews to issue oil and natural gas drilling permits across the West (see Daily GPI, Oct. 10, 2008).

Last December BLM cut the size of a Utah lease sale by half because of the land’s proximity to national parks and monuments (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16, 2008). Negotiations among all of the parties then began, resulting in the historic agreement, BLM said.

Primary signatories for the programmatic agreement (PA) include BLM, the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Carbon and Duchesne counties, UT, and Barrett, which is the West Tavaputs gas development project proponent.

Concurring signatories include the Utah State Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Utah Rock Art and Research Association, the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, the Utah Professional Archaeologists Council, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“This agreement represents the kind of solution that can emerge when we successfully bring together groups with varied perspectives to find common ground,” said BLM Utah State Director Selma Sierra. “Collaboration like this helps us effectively meet the challenge of managing public lands for multiple uses.”

The BLM Utah office made crafting a successful agreement possible by inviting all parties to participate in the development process. The parties collaborated to create an agreement that promotes environmentally responsible and balanced energy development while protecting the area’s abundant cultural resources. The resulting agreement addresses other project development issues, including dust raised by increased vehicle traffic and possible visual and auditory impacts associated with energy development.

Moreover, the agreement will benefit the public by providing for the enhancement and interpretation of key archaeological sites in Nine Mile Canyon, BLM said.

“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.

“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,” said Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Lori Hunsaker.

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