Preserving the ancient ruins of Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon

Archaeologist Jerry Spangler brought senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown into Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon for a firsthand look at the ancient ruins.

As a budding archaeologist in 1989, Jerry Spangler was amazed by what he saw in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon.

“I was unprepared,” Spangler said, for the unspoiled “secrets of its ancient inhabitants.” Thousands of archaeological sites and petroglyphs lined the canyon walls — more petroglyphs, it turned out, than anywhere in the lower 48 states.

For Spangler, the visit was the beginning of a 25-year love affair with Nine Mile Canyon. Now, as the executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, Spangler continues to identify and preserve the canyon’s cultural history, which, he says, is at risk from industrial development and vandalism.

Utah’s energy boom is driving Spangler’s current preservation efforts. In 2000, massive natural gas reserves were discovered on the plateau above Nine Mile Canyon. Developing those gas reserves means driving thousands of semi-trucks through the canyon’s dirt roads.

“What we have is a perfect storm of one of America’s richest archaeological districts sitting right next to one of America’s greatest natural gas reserves,” said Jerry Spangler, “and a conflict happens when you have industrial development in a cultural landscape.”

MoabSo far, Spangler and local preservation groups have been able to strike a deal to pave the canyon’s dirt roads, preventing damaging dust build-up on petroglyphs. The groups will continue to monitor ancient sites for industrial impacts.

But there is also the age–old problem of vandalism. Each year, preservationists find new initials, names and dates carved randomly next to ancient rock art. Spangler says such seemingly innocent acts can have lasting damage. “Every time a site is vandalized, information about that culture is lost forever,” he said.

Tune in to Thursday’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour to see Jeffrey Brown’s report on Nine Mile Canyon. You can watch on our Ustream Channel at 6 p.m. EDT or check your local listings.