This week, students at Denver University’s Environmental Law Clinic have taken action to block artist Christo’s massive “Over the River” project to be built almost entirely within the federally-protected Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Colorado. The project was approved in November by the Bureau of Land Management even after extensive protests from the Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR) volunteer activist group.
Two DU students, Mason Brown and Justine Shepherd are spearheading the case, and they are very concerned about the impact the project could have. “The art project will be akin to a mineral-development project, which is not allowed in the Arkansas Canyonlands,” Shepherd said at a February 1 press conference about the case.
Law professor Michael Harris explained that ROAR had contacted DU’s Environmental Art Clinic and after looking at the case they shared the group’s concern for the canyon that is protected under the Federal Land Policy Management Act. He pointed out that Christo’s project will drill 9,100 holes in the canyon, some as deep as 30 feet, which he compared to drilling 9,100 oil wells, as much of the equipment is the same. According to the court filing, in addition to the drilling the project incorporates 2,275 anchor transition frames, 1,275 cables of varying lengths, 925 fabric panel segments and will require a crew of 3,000.
ROAR spokesperson, Joan Anzelmo, who was also at the press conference characterized the case as “a modern day David versus Goliath struggle” with the volunteer organization and its allies being the David preparing to hurl their slingshot towards the behemoth of an art project.
The $50 million two-week project has been projected to bring over 400,000 tourists to the delicate environmental region that is home to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, which are highly susceptible to stress, not to mention peregrine falcons and bald eagles that are also native to the area. Preparations for the project, which is being paid for by the artist, will last two years and the activists and environmental law students are concerned that this will have a greater impact than the supporters of the project are willing to admit.
The civil action, filed with US District Court for Colorado claims, “The Art Project will have significant short- and long-term impacts on wildlife within the Arkansas Canyonlands.”
Christo is no stranger to controversy and his projects have created concerns over blocking airspace and been the site of accidents that have killed people. His Colorado project, one of his most ambitious, is planning to place 5.9 miles (9.5 km) of silvery, translucent fabric panels above the Arkansas River in eight different segments of a 42-mile stretch between Canon City and Salida in August 2014.