In letters sent this week to Bureau of Land Management officials in Washington and Salt Lake City, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation questions whether the BLM adequately evaluated potential damage from the drilling project on ancient art and archaeological sites.
The agency's involvement likely will slow the project and buttresses claims from tribal and conservation groups that Bill Barrett Corp.'s big-rig traffic along the canyon's dirt roads will destroy some of the West's most stunning ancient American Indian rock art.
"This is welcome news," said Jerry Spangler, of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. "It's pretty tough to ignore the advisory council when they get involved."
The advisory council acts as a kind of appeals agency that can step in and require a federal agency to reconsider its historical-preservation actions.
Reid Nelson, a spokesman for the council, said the panel intervenes only rarely in antiquity evaluations by federal agencies. But BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said her agency considers the council part of the routine - even though the review promises to push back final approval of Bill Barrett's project.
"That's OK," she said. "We'll adjust. The important part is we're working together. . . . Our goal is to preserve that rock art. Our goal is to take care of those cultural resources."
In the spring, during the comment period on a draft environmental-impact statement, the Hopi Nation requested the advisory council's participation after the BLM denied requests from the tribe and conservation groups for "consulting-party" status in the approval process. That would have given them more influence in the environmental study.
"When a tribe specifically requests the council be involved, it ups the ante," said Ti Hayes, public-lands attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In an April 30 letter, Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, criticized the BLM's draft EIS for excluding alternatives that would relieve the industrial impacts on cultural resources from dust, vibrations and diesel particulates.
Bill Barrett wants to fully develop the West Tavaputs Plateau with 800 new wells that could tap 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - enough to supply the country for about 17 days at today's consumption rate.
The company already has drilled about 100 wells on the plateau, which lies in Duchesne and Carbon counties. Big rigs serving the gas fields make hundreds of trips up and down the narrow dirt road through Nine Mile Canyon. Chemicals used to suppress the dust have stuck to rock-art panels.
The dust degrades air quality, which the Environmental Protection Agency wants the BLM to study further, a request that also could delay the project's final approval.
Nelson said the advisory council's involvement means some kind of negotiations must commence to resolve concerns about adverse effects on historical treasures. Or the BLM could refuse any suggestions.
Even then, Nelson said, the agency has to listen to the advisory council as the expert in how the National Historic Preservation Act is supposed to work.
Duane Zavadil, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Bill Barrett, said he didn't expect the review to take long. "It sounds like a relatively simple consultation that could be initiated and performed relatively quickly."