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More drilling means more work for private archaeologists

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Two men are crouched over, stabbing orange and blue flags among the hillside sagebrush, while two others scan the hilltop.

"Found a scrape," one yells.

The tiny rock tool was likely used to scrape animal hides clean hundreds of years ago — not significant enough to place in the National Museum of American History, but one of the big finds of the day.

This hillside near Gillette is littered with rusted cans, scrap wood and bits of porcelain left over from a homestead that must have been here a century ago. Each remnant is examined, recorded and left where it was found. After these pages of history are filed in government books, this hillside and all its homestead relics can be dozed over to make way for a drilling rig or coal shovel.

When archaeologists discover an American Indian stone alignment, teepee ring or some other significant artifact or structure, however, any mineral extraction activity must avoid the site.

"Sometimes you find things that have historical significance, and other times it's just trash," said Sean Wilson of Sheridan-based ACR Consultants Inc. "A lot of times you'll find something that's 90 years old right next to a 1985 Pepsi can."

Archaeologists like Wilson are in high demand all over Wyoming, driven by the burgeoning natural gas industry, most of which is centered on federally owned minerals.

Before a company can gain permission to go after the minerals, it must complete a long list of requirements, and one is to conduct a cultural survey to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.

Anything 50 years or older must be recorded. Most of the cultural survey work is conducted in the Powder River Basin, where coal-bed methane development casts a wide web of wells, power lines, compressor stations and pipelines. The Wyoming Historic Preservation Office estimates it has doubled its inventory of cultural resources in the basin since the beginning of coal-bed methane development.

But some coal-bed methane developers say it's a costly process that moves slowly and is mostly ineffective in discovering anything of significance.

"We spent $75,000 and one year on just 14 wells," said John Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Oil in Gillette. "We're recording old tin cans. What's worthwhile, we've known about for years. Ask the rancher — he can point out anything historically significant."

There is a better way. Bureau of Land Management officials in Wyoming are working with an Energy Department grant and with counterparts in Nevada and New Mexico to improve the process. Part of that effort is aimed directly at helping the Powder River Basin coal-bed methane industry work through its cultural survey work.

"It's attempting to make the process more rational and more efficient," said Eric Ingbar, owner of Gnomon Inc. in Nevada.

Ingbar said the idea is not to circumvent field surveys to discover and record cultural sites — those actions are still required by law.

However, a lot of time can be saved by overlaying new mapping with old records. By doing this, cultural resource officials hope to identify which areas have high or low potential for containing cultural resources on or below the surface.

"This is sometimes construed as an effort to eliminate survey. But the law does not allow that," Ingbar said.

Wilson and other surveyors will still walk over miles of terrain, scanning the ground for bits of history and clues to the Powder River Basin heritage.

"From a regulatory standpoint, it's part of better upstream management practice," Ingbar said.

Work on the two-year project is expected to be completed in December, said Mary Hopkins of the historic preservation office.

The BLM in Nevada was first to begin the work. Federal managers there were considering oil and gas development in the Railroad Valley and decided to create a model to identify which areas are most likely to contain historically significant materials.

Rich Hoops, leader of the Nevada BLM's fluid minerals program, said his agency used the model to decide where to lease minerals and where not to lease minerals. However, the model didn't result in a lot of no-lease areas. Rather, those lease areas with a high potential for significant historical materials were identified so potential bidders knew what they might face ahead of time.

"It gives the operators a really good heads-up," Hoops said.

It's different in the Powder River Basin because most of the federal minerals here are already leased.

The model wasn't developed in time to be included in the 2003 revision of the area management plan. That leaves some developers here skeptical about how much the modeling will actually help.

"(Electronic filing) certainly can help us in planning. We've already utilized some of that information on a proposed project, and we're exchanging information electronically," said Ruth Reile of Kennedy Oil.

However, the high-potential and low-potential modeling doesn't erase the requirement for field surveys. And in coal-bed methane development, there's a lot of ground to cover. Reile said Kennedy has proposed a 64-well project in which the modeling identified more than 400 sites of varying degrees of historical potential. Each area must be surveyed.

"This project is not going to eliminate the laborious work of surveying, and that will probably take a year," Reile said.

Still, history buffs contend the effort is worthwhile. John Hatch, who works with Wilson at ACR Consultants, said he believes it's important to tap Wyoming's clean-burning, coal-bed methane. And it's equally important to read the clues of the past along the way.

"If we don't know our past, we're lost," Hatch said. "We've got to know our heritage."