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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.

The site of “Over the River” (original map via (click to enlarge)

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.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

8 replies on “Environmental Law Students Sue Christo Over “Industrial-Scale” Colorado Project”

  1. is it just me or does this seem like an odd place for young environmentalist to focus all of their energy? 

      1. They have always spent millions of dollars on their projects, so why should this be any different, plus what else is he going to do with all his money? I feel that this project, a temporary project, will be less invasive than any number of other large scale construction projects that will probably do real, lasting harm…I guess my thinking was that it seemed odd that a bunch of young students would take on an art project rather than trying to stop an oil pipeline, or new housing development…I guess drilling all those holes would be a drag for the environment, but im not a geologist, so I cannot say what the long term effects of the holes would be.

        1. The issue is not the art work but the fact that they are allowed to work on federal land that is protected. Bringing any equipment of this type would be harmful and against the law, according to the lawyers. They don’t care if it’s an art project, a mine operation or luxury condos.

  2. Yahoo for them! That stupid waterfall project in NY a few years ago did a lot of damage to the trees by the River Cafe from all the salty mist.

  3. Some of ROAR’s oppositional complaints seem trivial or even wrong-headed (e.g., “Greatly increased danger for multiple casualty accidents due to people gawking, slowing, stopping, photographing the project,” and “Negative economic impacts to those whose living depends on traversing the canyon,” but there is one very important concern they raise which Hrag’s post also points to: “Disruption of wildlife and interference with their watering, feeding, breeding, etc.”While most of Christo’s projects are installed in urban or semi-urban settings, the river piece would almost certainly negatively impact wildlife in a federally protected area; it’s just a question of how many species and individuals would be negatively affected, and how negatively.It looks to be another impressive project, and the environmental impact statement gave a green light – even if it did so based on its proposed mitigations, which won’t necessarily be undertaken by the construction team and without which the EIS suggested the impact on terrestrial  wildlife would be long term and detrimental!  – but it would be best if Christo elected to head back to more urban settings.  The BLM approved the project, but the Colorado Wildlife Commission remains opposed, as do a great many environmental groups.  Are there bigger fish to fry?  Sure, but a bad decision is a bad decision is a bad decision.

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