Duchesne County looks to open oil tanker route through Nine Mile, Utah’s famed rock art corridor

BLM studies a plan to pave, realign road through Gate Canyon, connecting oil patch with rail loading facilities.

A renewed proposal to realign and pave a remote road out of the Uinta Basin could result in a busy oil tanker thoroughfare through Nine Mile Canyon, Utah’s famed rock art destination.

The Bureau of Land Management is now considering a petition by a Duchesne County service district to punch a new 5.2-mile stretch of Wells Draw Road down rugged Gate Canyon, effectively tying the oil fields near Myton with rail loading facilities on the Union Pacific tracks in Wellington.

Offering a faster connection between Duchesne and Carbon counties than U.S. Highway 191, the upgraded road is expected to draw up to 1,000 vehicles a day, half of them trucks, according to the proposal submitted by the Duchesne County Special Services District No. 2. The prospect of hundreds of tankers heading up and down Nine Mile Canyon is not sitting well with some elected leaders in Carbon County.

“The idea that anyone would allow this type of development inside Carbon County’s most important tourism resource is an affront to those of us working so hard to bring visitors and attention to our world-famous attractions,” said canyon tour guide and preservation advocate Layne Miller, who sits on the Price City Council. “To put it bluntly, tourists and oil tankers don’t mix.”

Dubbed “the world’s longest art gallery,” Nine Mine Canyon — which is far longer than 9 miles — is filled with thousands of petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls by the Native Americas who inhabited the area centuries ago. Preservationists fear the Gate Canyon proposal would put the canyon’s rock art and other artifacts at risk and ruin the canyon as a tourist destination.

The BLM has started an environmental review of the project and is accepting “scoping comments” about its design through Feb. 8.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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

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

Facilitating the transportation of oil, however, is not the main purpose of the project, according to Rodger Ames, who chairs the special services district board. The primary goal is to ensure a connection between Carbon and Duchesne counties when U.S. Highway 191 through Indian Canyon is blocked, he said, in a phone interview after the board voted to advance the project in September.

But officials with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) said that prolonged road closures due to accidents or rock fall are rare in Indian Canyon.

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

In September, the services district submitted a funding proposal to the Utah Community Impact Board (CIB), which disperses federal mineral royalties to local governments for projects that address impacts associated with mineral extraction. The CIB has yet the review that request.

A prior attempt by Duchesne County to secure state funding for Gate Canyon was met with resistance from its coal-producing neighbor to the south. Carbon and Duchesne counties cofounded the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition to promote projects, such as the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, to move eastern Utah’s mineral production to market.

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

(Al Hartmann | Salt Lake Tribune) Water trucks make their way along the dirt road in Nine Mile Canyon in 2010.

At a coalition board meeting last year, Carbon County Commission Chairman Casey Hopes said heavy tanker traffic would result in significant wear on the Nine Mile road. Not designed for tankers, the road is largely used by tourists and locals to access rock art sites. His county would bear the negative impacts of oil traffic, while experiencing little of the economic upside, he said.

According to Miller, Nine Mile epitomizes Carbon County’s efforts to diversify its economy away from fossil fuel development. For the first time in generations, Carbon County mines last year failed to produce a single ton of the carboniferous rock it is known for, while the county has invested in making Nine Mile more visitor friendly in an effort to boost a tourism economy.

“What it’s going to take for rock art to get the recognition and protection that it deserves from locals and from the state is for it to become an economic generator,” said Miller, a co-founder of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. “Once local folks can see that rock art is generating taxes and all that kind of stuff, then it’ll become important. And that’s what’s happening in Nine Mile.”

The BLM meanwhile has rekindled its long-stalled efforts to craft and implement an interpretive plan for the canyon.

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

“Nine Mile still one of those places where you have to be careful when you drive through. You round the corner and there will be a sedan with all four doors open, people are out of the car looking at the cliffs,” Miller said. “You know how fast those oil guys can drive. And you don’t stop one of those loaded oil tankers very soon.”

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

The northern half of the segment crosses federal land, while the southern half is on state trust lands. The right of way width would vary from 80 to a whopping 350 feet.

“Some sections of the roadway are located in relatively flat regions and the required widths are narrower,” the proposal states. “However, much of the roadway is located in a canyon, which requires larger cuts and fills, and therefore a wider right-of-way is required to meet safety standards.”

The project includes parking for two proposed interpretive trails in Gate Canyon, providing access to a historic wagon road.

Increased industrial traffic could require upgrading the Nine Mile road, which could further imperil countless rock art panels located just off the paved surface, according to Kent Williams, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association.

“That same proximity of rock art to the road allows the opportunity for people to appreciate and enjoy the images in a relatively natural setting,” Williams said. “A steady stream of semitrucks with noise and diesel exhaust would degrade that experience. Nine Mile Canyon is a one-of-a-kind outdoor museum with world class rock art. Surely there is a better alternative for a hydrocarbon highway.”