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John Hollenhorst ReportingFor months controversy has been boiling in Central Utah over two proposed natural-gas exploration projects. They're on BLM land near Nine Mile Canyon, one of Utah's best-known archaeological sites. Now, critics say the BLM 's best in-house expert was ordered off the project and told to keep quiet.
The BLM promotes Nine Mile Canyon as "The World's Longest Art Gallery". It stretches through 35 miles of ancient rock art. For a quarter century, the BLM archaeological expert here has been Blaine Miller. But now, Miller has been ordered to sit on the sidelines as his agency considers approving what is potentially the biggest thing ever to happen in and around Nine Mile Canyon.
Fleets of thumper trucks will fan out on the plateau just outside the canyon. Helicopters will fly in equipment. Ten or 20 pound explosive charges will be set off inside thousands of drill holes.
All of it's designed to shake the ground adjacent to the canyon, making seismic waves to map the underground geology. A related proposal is to drill 15 exploratory gas wells near the canyon.
In a June memo obtained by KSL, Blaine Miller's BLM boss ordered him not to be involved or to return phone calls about the projects.
Layne Miller, Utah Rock Art Research Foundation: "The people who know the canyon the best have been taken out of the loop."
Layne Miller, no relation to Blaine Miller, is president of the Utah Rock Art Research Foundation. He says Blaine was elbowed out because of his concern about archaeological damage. The BLM says Blaine was sidelined because he lost objectivity.
Julie McGee, B.L.M. Staff Archaeologist: "He's been involved with a local group known as the Nine Mile Coalition for several years. And he's just gotten very close to the resources, and he has a conflict of interest, to be honest."
Layne Miller, Utah Rock Art Research Foundation: "It's ludicrous."
Layne Miller says other BLM employees have actually been assigned to be members of the same coalition, without ever being accused of a conflict.
Layne Miller, Utah Rock Art Research Foundation: "The BLM was the agency who suggested that the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition be established! It was established because they wanted it established and they recommended it."
But the BLM says Blaine Miller was so passionately involved in the Coalition, it interfered with his work.
Julie McGee, B.L.M. Staff Archaeologist: "He just wasn't getting consultation done. It wasn't being completed on a timely basis."
Knowledgable sources tell us that Blaine Miller clashed repeatedly with his bosses who wanted him to say the projects would have no significant impact.
Layne Miller, Utah Rock Art Research Foundation: "He stepped back and said, 'Look, this isn't appropriate for Nine Mile. This shouldn't happen.' since he dug in his heels, he was taken out of the loop."
Julie McGee, B.L.M. Staff Archaeologist: "And I think that he really cares about the resources, but we also have a job that we have to complete. We have to stay objective as BLM employees. We need to get the job done."
The BLM promises a total commitment to protecting the archaeology. But critics see the Blaine Miller affair as another example of the Bush administration pushing development as the highest priority.
We asked Blaine Miller himself for an interview, but the BLM interceded and said he is not the "appropriate spokesman." He continues to work for the BLM, on other projects.