Where does art end and environmental destruction begin? That’s the conundrum that residents in south-central Colorado are facing over a controversial art installation proposal by the famed Bulgarian artist Christo and his late wife that would cloak silver fabric above the Arkansas River spanning a length of 42 miles. Proponents advocate that the project will bring art seekers to cash-strapped rural Colorado, but opponents feel the impact to nature will be disproportionately negative.

The project titled “Over the River” has been in the works for nearly two decades (it was originally announced in 1992) and will have its fate determined early next year by the federal Bureau of Land Management or BLM. If approved, the work would be displayed for two weeks in 2014.

According to Christo and Jeanne Claude's website, "The fabric will cover only 6.9 to 7 miles of the 40.7-mile stretch of river from Canon City to Salida and will be divided into 8 areas, allowing for frequent interruptions."

“Over the River” is reminiscent of the art duo’s previous repertoire that has won them many critical accolades, including “Surrounded Islands” which draped shiny, pink polypropylene around a group of islands near Miami and “The Gates,” an installation that lined New York’s Central Park with bright, orange vinyl curtains.

Christo’s proposal has been championed by a diverse coalition of local artists, tourism boards and politicians, including Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper, who wrote in a letter to the BLM, “Not only will ‘Over the River’ generate significant tourist dollars for area hotels, restaurants and attractions, it will also give a tremendous boost to the growing prominence of Denver and our state on the international arts scene.”

Environmentalists are not convinced and have fiercely opposed “Over the River” for years, claiming that potential harm to area wildlife significantly outweighs the artistic benefits.

Cathey Young, board secretary of Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), the lead organization resisting the project, outlined a host of ecological problems associated with the development, highlighting potential severe negative impacts on bats, birds and sheep.

“The draft Environmental Impact Statement released earlier this year calls the impacts to wildlife ‘significant.’ This is the highest level of impact rating that is ever given. So, certainly the biologists that were part of the EIS team saw the dangers,” Young said.

She pointed to several studies conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife done in the late 1990s that examined the impact on the indigenous herd of bighorn sheep that live in the canyon. 

“The result of months of study by the DOW biologists was that the project would threaten, if not extinguish the herd. Although much is said about how the herd has accommodated to the highway traffic, their studies concluded that they do not do well with new environmental disruption. The immense cranes, heavy equipment, use of the railroad after years of non-use, very loud drills and increased levels of human interaction are examples of what they call ‘novel’ intrusion.”

Young added that studies demonstrated sheep mortality would increase if guzzlers were used as an alternate source of water as this would potentially lead to increased predation by mountain lions, and increased spread of disease.

Bird habitats would also be affected, according to Arkansas Valley Audubon Society conservation chair SeEtta Moss.

“Audubon Colorado (and my local chapter) have continuing environmental concerns regarding the proposed project,” Moss said. “As noted in the EIS, there are risks of collision with the panels by a number of avian species including bald and golden eagles and Peregrine falcons. We are concerned that it may not be possible to avoid some serious impacts or adequately mitigate them.”

In addition, Rocky Smith of the conservation group Colorado Wild pointed out bats would be in harm’s way as well.

“A rare species is likely to be harmed — Townsend's big-eared bat. Of 15 maternity roosts in the state, two are in the river canyon where ‘Over the River’ would be constructed, and one is possible very near some of the proposed panel installation,” Smith said. “Bats could crash into panels or the cables holding them, since they have never seen anything like that before. In sum, the harm to this rare species could be great.”

Raising awareness

Christo, for his part, has defended his projects as helping raise “public awareness of the environment through the art work, much more than environmentalists can afford to do.”

British land artist Chris Drury, who has constructed similar art installations that have involved nature, questioned Christo’s motivations behind “Over the River.”

“Any work of art that adversely affects a whole ecosystem has to be an utterly thoughtless, ego-driven statement which I would condemn,” he said.

“Land or Earth art can effectively question how we live and relate to our fragile planet. I am not sure that such questions have ever concerned Christo.”