Kevin T. Jones: Proposed tanker route threatens priceless artworks in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon

Tanker trucks through Utah canyon makes as much sense as a highway through a modern art museum.

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

A proposed bypass connecting Highway 101 with I-10 through Los Angeles County has drawn the ire of historic preservationists and art aficionados alike. While touted as an economic necessity that will enable more efficient transport of goods — especially oil products — through the area, the effects on historic neighborhoods and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are seen by many as unacceptable.

The “preferred alternative” takes the route directly through the museum grounds, over the “Levitated Mass” by artist Michael Heizer, next to the Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, and just clipping the Urban Light Installation.

Proponents claim that the 300 to 500 oil tankers a day will not pose a problem to local residents, and that the improved roadway will increase the visibility of the Museum and its art to commuters.

While this proposal is purely imaginary — so far — a similar proposal is in the works that will cut through the heart of what has been called “The world’s longest art gallery” — Nine Mile Canyon in central Utah.

Home to more than 10,000 works of ancient art, the canyon is world-renowned as a treasured repository of sublime, mysterious, moving, fine art. Visitors to the canyon are embraced by the swirling cranes, the piercing eyes of owls, the split-hooved bison, great-antlered elk, horned serpents and mountain big-horn sheep — herds and herds of them. Grand, elaborately adorned human-like figures both threaten and entice, and unknowably rich works that flow from familiar to abstract and back again engage us, invite us in to the deeply human symbolic world of the ancient masters who toiled here.

A proposed road improvement will bring oil tankers at a rate of one every three minutes through the canyon, along with local and tourist traffic. The disruption, the unmitigated destruction of the ambience of the now serene canyon is as unacceptable as a highway through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and perhaps even greater, as these works of art are immovable — they cannot be taken to another spot and put on display. Destruction of their setting is destruction of their magic, their meaning, their worth.

Pecked and painted on to the cliff faces of this spectacular sandstone canon are thousands upon thousands of incredible works of art spanning at least 2,000 years. Created by the unimaginably talented artists of the hunting and gathering archaic cultures, the farming, tower-building Fremont Culture and the Bear-Dancing horseback-mounted Utes, these are not simple “folk art” or stick-figures. They are complex works of fine art as deeply human as any in a modern museum.

They are displayed just as they were when created, in the exact places the painters and carvers stood hundreds of years ago. A visitor to the canyon is visiting the artist’s studio, and can experience the same vistas, the same breezes, the same cries of soaring hawks, as the artists did so long ago. An oil tanker roaring by every few minutes is unthinkable.

And yet, the proposed road “improvement” to enable transport of the waxy crude oil extracted in the Uinta Basin to the north through the center of this cultural treasure to railheads to the south, heading for refineries across the country, is moving forward. That it will enhance the climate change that is affecting us all is apparently of no concern to the proponents.

This effort pits Carbon County, the gateway to Nine Mile Canyon, against Duchesne County, to the north. Duchesne County is solidly behind the “Hydrocarbon Highway” through the “longest art gallery in the world,” while Carbon County sees the canyon and its artistic treasures as a significant economic and cultural asset, a key to sustainable long-term economic growth.

Oil and gas exploration and production have long provided a very unstable “boom and bust” economy for Duchesne County, and they are trying to push the current “boom” as far as they can, to the point of destroying long-term assets for short-term gain.

The Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, a grassroots organization of mostly local people who love and care for the canyon and its resources, is working to oppose the proposed highway (they have been called “rock huggers” because of their commitment), as is the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. I urge those who care about art, about culture, about Native American heritage, and about protecting our environment, to work with these and other organizations to oppose this wrong-headed greed-driven proposal.

I suspect artist Michael Heizer, creator of the “Levitated Mass” would oppose both the highway through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as the one through Nine Mile Canyon, as his dad, anthropologist Robert F. Heizer, wrote the book on rock art. (Several of them, in fact).

Kevin Jones | Utah state archeologist, 1994 - 2011

Kevin T. Jones is the former state archaeologist of Utah, and the author of “Standing on the Walls of Times: Ancient Art of Utah’s Cliffs and Canyons,” with photographs by Layne Miller.