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Christo’s Colorado Project Postponed, Environmentalists Continue Fight to Stop It

by Cat Weaver on February 27, 2012

The artist Christo continues to battle to realize his “Over the River” project in Colorado, announcing last week that the controversial work hopes to go up a year later than planned. The new exhibition date for “Over the River,” which involves the creation of a canopy of shiny polypropylene fabric over a 42-mile section of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, will be August 2015, pushed back from the same time a year before.

A statement on the project’s website cites two reasons for the delay: detailed Event Management Plans that are taking longer than expected and a late Record of Decision (ROD) — which came in the form of an approval — from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The latter, which was the result of an extensive environmental review process, would have allowed only 24 months of installation time for the project, instead of the originally planned 28. According to the release, the new installation date will give the public “time to better understand how traffic, safety and other issues will be addressed.”

The delay also allows more time for legal drama, as the project has been drawing fire from environmental activists and local concerns for nearly a decade. Currently Christo, the BLM and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Board (CPWB) are caught up in an ongoing legal battle with grassroots organization Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR). In July, ROAR, which was formed specifically to fight the “Over The River” project, filed its first lawsuit, which takes aim against the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Board. And on February 1, after what they viewed as a lack of responsiveness to local voices, ROAR felt forced to file a second lawsuit against the project, this time targeting the BLM and regional managers, along with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

The suit, filed by students at Denver University’s Environmental Law Clinic, Mason Brown and Justine Shepherd, and with the assistance of professor Michael Harris, cites in particular a failure on the part of the BLM to uphold its own protective policies and those of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.

According to the Denver Post:

“The suit blasts the BLM for violating the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in its approval of the project, arguing its impact surpasses anything related to recreation and should be reviewed as an extractive project.”

The site of "Over the River" (original map via pilotfriend.com) (click to enlarge)

DU’s Environmental Law Clinic took the case after ROAR approached them in a last ditch effort to find support. After looking into the substance of their claims, the law students felt they had to help.

“My initial reaction was this was a two-week thing, what could happen,” Justine Shepherd told Hyperallergic in an interview earlier this month. “And then I looked at the records and realized how damaging this could be to the area and potentially disastrous.”

The case, both law students insist, is not challenging the artistic vision, but their beef is with the BLM’s duty to protect public land. “The fact that it was an art project is irrelevant,” Shepherd says.

The law students explain that there are a lot of challenges to creating an environmental impact statement and that the government violated other statues.

“BLM’s approval flies in face of the the federal land policy act, SLPA, because it doesn’t conform to the prescribed land use for bighorn sheep canyon, and the land use came out from public hearings,” Mason Brown explains. “Eighty percent [of Christo's project is] in an area of critical environmental concern, and includes exclusions like mineral and service extraction, and this is like that,” he says.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and artistic partner who died in 2009 of complications from a brain aneurysm, have not been strangers to controversy, particularly when it concerns the health and environmental impact of their work. In 1991, their “The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and USA” killed Lori Keevil-Matthews, a 33-year-old California resident, when one of the 485-pound yellow umbrellas broke loose and crushed her against a boulder in the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles. In its flight the rogue umbrella injured three other people. Matters were made worse when, out of respect for the victims, Christo ordered the project to be dismantled. During the dismantling, 51-year-old Masaaki Nakamura died when the arm of the crane he was operating touched a 65,000-volt power line.

The current project is expected by Christo and county officials to generate an estimated $121 million in economic output and draw 400,000 visitors during the two-year construction period and two-week display. Considering its estimated cost of $50 million, this appears, on the face of things, to be a worthwhile business proposition, with little to lose and much to gain. 

However, ROAR president Dan Ainsworth views as benighted the enthusiasm expressed by some local businesses and governmental agencies, marveling, “Some here in the rafting business believe they will be infinitely rich. I tell them those rigs will be along the river for 840days. And I doubt they will let any rafts anywhere even close to those rigs.

” He goes on breathlessly, “The Chamber of Commerce, the City council — they’re stumbling over themselves and drooling over Christo, talking about how great this is going to be.”

When he isn’t marveling at the craziness of his smitten chamber of commerce, Ainsworth expresses frustration with the hypothetical numbers recited by supporters of Over The River, citing potential increases in tourism and promising jobs to local manufacturers and laborers. “They have promised that they will ‘attempt’ to hire as many local people as possible and will create over 620 jobs. But they say ‘attempt’ because they know won’t find what they need here. They’ve already said that the fabric comes from Germany. And they won’t find the 1.5″ tensile steel cable here. And there isn’t any skilled labor or contractor here who can do that work.”

Meantime he points out, “People will come here to raft and fish and take pictures and all they’re going to see are these drilling rigs. And they won’t come back again. People laugh at me, but I say Cañon City will be a literal ghost town when all this is over.”

Joan Anzelmo, formerly of the National Park Service and an expert on environmental issues, is working with ROAR. She says she came on board a couple of months ago when she heard that the BLM had given the nod, essentially, to Christo’s project. “My jaw just dropped,” she says, adding that she never would have believed they would let it happen. “Everything about the project is wrong; it’s in the wrong place,” she says after reciting a long list animals and economic systems that will be impacted by the project.

“So many impacts! This is an environmentally sensitive area, a habitat for Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep…brown trout…rainbow trout…bald eagles and Peregrine falcons and the people and communities that depend on the canyon for livelihood,” Anzelmo says.

For their part, Christo’s camp cites the completed environmental study as proof that “Over the River” is sound. Project spokesman Steve Coffin offered Hyperallergic this written statement:

“The Environmental Impact Statement process that was completed in August 2011 was a thorough and comprehensive analysis. Never before in the history of the National Environmental Policy Act has a work of art, temporary or permanent, been subjected to this highest level of federal evaluation. This process took 2 ½ years, analyzed every potential concern, and identified over 100 mitigation measures. Christo is confident that the EIS will withstand legal scrutiny.”

Asked what the next steps for ROAR will be, Ainsworth says he’s been dealing with Freemont County, which will have a part in deciding on Christo’s request for a temporary land use permit. The Commissioners, he tells us, have become concerned enough to extend comments for another week and have agreed to table their decision until their February 28th meeting.

With reporting by Hrag Vartanian and Jillian Steinhauer

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  • Charles Rollman

    Canyon City ==> Canon City.

    Otherwise great article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

       Whoopsie: Cañon!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

       Fixed. Thank you, Charles.

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