Christo river wrap gets BLM approval


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Christo, the controversial artist whose works involve wrapping or hanging fabric over buildings, canyons and even entire islands, has won federal approval for a massive new project in Colorado.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management announced Monday that it had released a Record of Decision approving Christo’s “Over The River,” a temporary art installation. The giant project has encountered serious and organized local resistance but the artist has mitigated several threats to Colorado wildlife.


Several state and local permits are still required.

“Over The River” comprises eight huge, silvery fabric panels spanning 5.9 miles directly above the Arkansas River where it flows through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. The panels will be deployed at various spots along a 42-mile stretch of the river, which, according to a Colorado State Parks spokesperson, is the most popular commercially rafted river in the United States.

The temporary work of art will be displayed between Salida and Cañon City in southern Colorado, currently scheduled for two consecutive weeks in August 2014. The project is projected to bring in 300,000 to 400,000 visitors and generate $121 million in revenue, according to the BLM.

“This is the most significant milestone yet in completing ‘Over The River,’ and we can now get to work applying for the few remaining permits that we still need,” Christo said in a statement on the project’s website. ‘We are much closer to finally realizing this work of art that Jeanne-Claude and I first envisioned many years ago. Although our team is still reviewing the [federal approval], I am confident that we can now move forward so we begin construction in the summer of 2012.”

Christo, 76, who is Bulgarian by birth but lives in Paris, and his wife Jeanne-Claude worked as a team on their monumental works. Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm in 2009. Their “Valley Curtain” project draped a huge orange curtain across a valley in Rifle, Colo., in 1971.

According to Tina Brown, a spokesperson for the BLM, Christo and Jeanne-Claude first began making verbal inquiries about the project in 1996, and then made a formal proposal in 2006. An all-volunteer Colorado group called Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, sprung up to raise concerns over the effects on threatened wildlife such as bighorn sheep and bald eagles, increased river and road traffic, a potential drain on local emergency services and other issues. With the release of the Record of Decision (ROD) on Monday, the opposition group pointed out that there was still a long road ahead.

“The ROD does not affect the fact that the State Parks Board’s decision is illegal under state law,” noted Cathey Young, the ROAR board secretary. “This release from the BLM does not affect the state lawsuit that ROAR has over the Parks Board Memorandum of Agreement. Christo needs both to do his project.”


She added that “ROAR will make a statement at the appropriate time.”

Indeed, “Over The River” still faces several hurdles. Approvals have already been obtained from the Colorado State Parks Board and the Colorado State Land Board, but permits are still outstanding from Fremont and Chaffee counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado State Patrol. ROAR is suing the State Parks Board over an agreement it made with the artist and his OTR Corp., which was set up to build the massive project.

Colorado State Parks could not comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

The project’s hefty environmental impact study showed that threats to native wildlife were many and complex. The huge steel cables required to hang the fabric would stretch from bank to bank, for instance, requiring heavy construction to install. Several mitigation measures were required to protect bighorn sheep, which live and breed in the canyon (hence the name), including construction restrictions from April 15 to June 30 every year. Also, OTR agreed to build habitat improvements and water developments to allow the sheep access to water and new habitat, and to create a fund that would continue to look after the sheep for years after the project is dismantled.

Migratory birds and eagles also required modifications to the project. The large cables will be festooned with “avian diverters,” which are colorful sleeves meant to give the birds visual evidence of the cable, for as long as they hang over the valley.

“We’ve heard a lot about traffic and about the bighorn sheep,” said Brown, speaking about the issues encountered by the project. “Those were the two major ones. But working with those cooperating agencies, I think we came up with some good mitigation measures to alleviate those problems.”

OTR is required to work with the state to keeps lanes open on U.S. Highway 50, which runs up the valley, and to develop a boat scheduling system to efficiently handle the expected glut of rafters and kayakers who will want to see the project from the river.

“If you want to get the entire scope of the project, on the river would be the best place to see it,” added Brown. “People driving along the road will be able to experience it, but the rafters and the kayakers will be able to see it in a unique way, and to see the sky up through the fabric.”


The ROAR website lists a host of other issues with the project, including the increase in litter and human waste in the canyon, permanent defacement of the riverbanks and damage from the cable installations, the hindrance of eagles hunting under the fabric, the complete disruption of angling in these prime fishing waters, and negative effects on regular commercial and recreational highway users in the area.

Mitigation measures and the environmental impact report on this project are available online.


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-- Dean Kuipers