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‘Over the River’ moves forward

Image Courtesy Over the River Project/Christo

Steeped with legal woes, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff’s, “Over the River” project took a step closer to becoming a reality earlier this year when the Federal District Court upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to permit his artwork on the Arkansas River between Parkdale and Salida.

The Bulgarian-born artist is widely known as just Christo.

Known for such projects as “Surrounded Islands” in Florida, “Wrapped Reichstag” in Germany and “The Umbrellas” in California and Japan, Christo plans to hang 5.9 miles of silvery panels over the Arkansas River for a two-week period sometime in the future. One thousand panels will be interspersed over eight different sections along the 42-mile stretch between the Fremont-Chaffee county line to Parkdale.

In the early 1990s, Christo and artist Jeanne-Claude, who is now deceased, toured the entire Rocky Mountain states, looking for a site, said OTR spokesman Miles Graham.

“The artists actually traveled nearly 15,000 miles, visiting 89 rivers in seven Rocky Mountain states, searching for a location for ‘Over the River,'” he said. “They ultimately identified the Arkansas River between Salida and Canon City location because it provides a number of key (elements), such as the east/west orientation so the fabric panels capture the variety of contrasting sunlight from morning to evening. They have high river banks that allow steel cables to be suspended across the river and a road running along the river, (which) provides viewing, as well as a railroad that allows access for essential transportation. One of the key elements is to be able to see the works from underneath and that section of the most rafted rivers in the United States.”

If the decision is upheld, there are still a number of steps that need to take place to move forward with the project.

Initially, it began when Christo and Jeanne-Claude went through the preliminary proceedings and hurdles before requesting an Environmental Impact Statement be conducted, as well.

“It was determined an EIS was the best way to go forward,” Graham said. “That EIS process, (which took nearly three years) began in  2009. BLM issued its record of decision, approving the project in November 2011 then the EIS statement was the first ever that analyzed a work of art so it’s very unique in that respect.”

Some of the concerns that the EIS covered included traffic, endangering wildlife and not being able to transport victims in case of emergencies.

The EIS found there would be minor traffic problems during construction because of a limited time frame of construction activities, the study said. During the process, one lane of U.S. HWY 50 would have to be closed on a temporary basis, but it would not consist of more than a 40-foot stretch of the highway and would not last more than three minutes for any vehicle, the EIS said.   Also, the Colorado Department of Transportation would be in charge and it would be similar to the typical one-lane CDOT road repair closure that takes place on US-50 on a regular basis.

The EIS also stated the project would not block wildlife from going to the river for water or food. The project would take place when it would not interfere with breeding and nesting seasons, as well as create buffer zones for eagles and sheep.

During the viewing, Christo also plans to provide emergency response teams and equipment along strategic areas in the canyon in case of emergencies, as well as ambulances and helicopters.

Image Courtesy Over the River Project/Christo
Image Courtesy Over the River Project/Christo

“The artists intentionally altered their design to eliminate fabric panels from river locations that have a high incidence of rescue so that emergency responders can easily access the river. Christo will continue work with local municipalities and emergency responders,” the EIS said. “In fact, the Over the River Environmental Impact Statement will include specific emergency/incident response plans, which will benefit valley residents for years to come.”

According to an economic analysis by the BLM, the OTR project would bring an economic boom to Fremont, Chaffee, Pueblo and El Paso counties. The analysis found that it would create more than $121 million in total economic output within Colorado with 344,000 visitors during the 14-day exhibition period, generate $1.58 million in the state and local taxes, $583,000 tax revenue in Fremont and Chaffee counties, as well as 620 temporary jobs, $25.7 million in personal income and generate $57.2 million in economic output from visitor spending in Fremont, Chaffee, El Paso and Pueblo counties.

After the BLM approved its record of decision, a local group of residents formed the Rags Over The River Inc. and filed an appeal to the record of decision in July 2011. However, the complaint was denied and dismissed by the court. The ruling upheld the decision of State Parks to enter into an agreement to allow the OTR to use the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. At that point, ROAR appealed the decision.

“The first legal challenge was an appeal on the record of decision, which is the ultimate results on the Environmental Impact Statement,” Graham said. “That appeal to the IBLA was filed in December 2011. The Interior Board of Land Appeals issued a decision to reject the challenges to Over the River. The federal case, which was filed in February 2012, was put on hold until the IBLA ruled. That’s the ruling we just saw (Jan. 2).”

With the BLM’s approval of Over the River being reviewed and upheld by both the state and the federal court, the ruling makes “a strong statement about why all prior challenges to the federal permit have now been rejected,” a press release said. “Any appeal would be nothing more than another attempt to delay the project.”

But the team’s legal issues are not over yet.

“Now the decision to uphold the approval of  Over the River in state court is being appealed at the Colorado Court of Appeals,” Graham said. “That is the next decision (we’re still waiting to hear).”

If the decision is upheld, there are still a number of steps that need to take place to move forward with the project.

“We’re not speculating on timing right now,” Graham said. “Installation of Over the River requires 27 months to complete and it must commence in some future January. In order to even get there, there’s a lead time for ordering materials and there are still a few permits and filing with BLM and other agencies. Given the perplexity of the scheduling and the final permitting that must begin well in advance of actual construction, we’re not speculating on a timeline at this point. We’re moving forward.”

In the meantime, the Over the River project will be displayed for only two weeks in some future August then removed completely so there will be no sign that it ever existed, Graham said.

“The fabric will be transparent so when you’re floating below it, you can actually look up through the fabric and see the sky and clouds above and it does let sunlight in,” he said. “There’s enough sunlight that it doesn’t deter the sheep or anything.”

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Written by Charlotte Burrous

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Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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