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Judge Approves Christo’s Controversial Colorado Project

Christo, Over The River, Project For The Arkansas River, State of Colorado Collage 2007 21.5 x 28 cm (8 1/2" x 11") Pencil, enamel paint, wax crayon, photograph by Wolfgang Volz, fabric sample and topographic map. Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo 2007
Christo, “Over The River, Project For The Arkansas River, State of Colorado Collage” (2007), 8 1/2″ x 11″, Pencil, enamel paint, wax crayon, fabric sample and topographic map. Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo 2007 (Image via overtheriverinfo.com)

It looks like artist Christo may soon be “hanging those sheets over the river,” as a federal judge once described a proposed art project in southern Colorado that has stirred much debate. On Friday, a Federal District Court upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to allow the environmental artist to install 5.9 miles of silver fabric above the Arkansas River, The Pueblo Chieftain reported.

Christo released a statement soon after the legal victory: “I was always confident the court would uphold the BLM’s actions because the Environmental Impact Statement conducted by the BLM was thorough and comprehensive. We have one appeal in state court still outstanding, but today we took a significant step forward in realizing Over The River.”

The agency’s approval of Christo’s project was challenged when law students at the University of Denver Law School filed a civil action lawsuit on behalf of the ad hoc activist group Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR) February 1, 2012. They claimed the agency had violated two laws — the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — by approving the project. In both cases, the court concluded that the BLM’s approval was “not arbitrary and capricious.”

The suit wasn’t the first that ROAR had filed involving the artwork. In 2011, they also sued the State Parks for allowing Christo to use the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which the Park co-manages with BLM. That case was dismissed on September 5, 2013, though ROAR appealed the decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals. It is now the only suit that remains unresolved; an administrative appeal filed in 2011 by two individuals and an activist group called the “Quiet Use Coalition” over the BLM’s decision to grant Christo the ability to use BLM land was rejected in 2013.

“We have one lawsuit in state court still outstanding, but today we took a very significant and important step forward in realizing Over the River [OTR],” Christo told The Pueblo Chieftain, referencing the project’s name.

ROAR was sorely disappointed by the decision and is now contemplating further legal action, according to a statement released Saturday. The group is concerned about the effects of the $50 million project, which will drill 9,100 holes into the ground, some as deep as 30 feet, and require a crew of 3,000 workers to install over a 27-month period. The area is a habitat for Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep, bald eagles, and Peregrine falcons, and the livelihoods of many locals depend on it.

“Ultimately ROAR knew it would be an uphill battle to stop Christo’s behemoth OTR project,” the group wrote. “But ROAR’s members know firsthand the incomparable values of the Arkansas River and the sensitive Bighorn Sheep Canyon, they call home. They, better than any others, know it is worth fighting even a massive Washington D.C. bureaucracy and a famous artist who does not care one bit about how his project will hurt people, wildlife, the land and the river.”

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