FoA intervenes when Christo crosses the line between art and environmental destruction

FoA intervenes when Christo crosses the line between art and environmental destruction

FoA intervenes when Christo crosses the line between art and environmental destruction

FoA intervenes when Christo crosses the line between art and environmental destruction 

By Nicole Rivard 

When people hear the name Christo, more often than not they will think of the famed Bulgarian artist and his massive, outdoor, temporary art installations. They might envision his “Gates” project—7,503 gates with free-hanging saffron colored fabric panels that created a golden river through the trees in New York’s Central Park—or the 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, that he surrounded with 6.5 million square feet of floating pink woven polypropylene fabric.

The group Rags Over the Arkansas River Inc. (ROAR) has little name recognition compared to Christo. But that’s not stopping members of this grassroots organization from trying to put a halt on the artist’s plans to suspend 5.9 miles of fabric panels in eight separate areas above a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado, a project he refers to as “Over the River.” 

Attorneys from Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program are representing ROAR, which was established in 2005, in this David and Goliath style battle.

ROAR sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2011 for approving Christo’s project, saying the agency violated federal law and its own policies. “Over the River” would be built almost entirely within the federally designated Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), key habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. An ACEC is a place set aside primarily for protection of wildlife, for scenic value and for low-key recreation. The stretch of the Arkansas River running through the area is also among the most popular rafting rivers in the world.

At press time, the project continued to be stalled as FoA’s attorneys had submitted arguments to the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit after U.S District Judge William Martinez’s January 2015 ruling against ROAR.

“Christo and his public relations machine are emphasizing that the proposed project will just be a two-week display…hoping people will think, ‘So what’s the big deal?” said Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for ROAR. “But it will be at least 2½ years to construct it, and another six months to deconstruct it. Even at two weeks, it would be very impactful and harmful to wildlife and to people.

“The members of ROAR live and breathe this place every day. It is their home. They know exactly what the risks are if this project is allowed to go forward and they are not at all daunted. Even though the courts have thus far ruled more favorably for the BLM, we aren’t stopping until there is nothing left to do to stop this.”

Cathy Young, an occupational therapist and board member of ROAR, is credited with first pulling together a group of locals to focus on the impact of the $50 million “Over the River” project back in 1997, when Christo and his late wife Jean Claude first visited Colorado and began to identify the Arkansas River and Bighorn Sheep Canyon as the place to install their project.

Many of Young’s patients were homebound and on oxygen, or had advanced diseases that sometimes required instant emergency medical attention. When she began to understand the implications of a 2½- year-long industrial-scale construction project that would block the road, her first concern was for the safety of the people who live there. She was soon joined by ecologist Ellen Bauder, local businessman Dan Ainsworth and geophysicist Janice Yalch, among others, who were troubled by the potential impact on the wildlife and the environment.

Construction and demolition for “Over the River” will include the use of equipment commonly used in mining and road building, including hydraulic drills, long-reach excavators, wheeled excavators, boom truck cranes, grouters, air compressors, water tanks, grout mixers, support trailers, steel rock anchors and anchor frames.

To accommodate the nearly six miles of polypropylene, Christo’s team will have to drill 9,100 holes, each approximately 30 to 50 feet deep, along the river bank and in bedrock for bolts nine feet long. They will also need to install 1,275 steel cables, which will hover 8 to 25 feet above the water, as well as 2,275 anchor transition frames, most of which will be left behind when the project is over.

Anzelmo points out that bighorn sheep are entirely dependent on the Arkansas River for water. Die-offs in bighorn sheep populations from stress factors like increased human activity, car and truck traffic, dust, noise and possible displacement of water sources have all been documented in the Environmental Impact Statement provided by the BLM. Christo himself acknowledges that up to 50 percent of the sheep may perish, but he says he can just buy some replacements to bring into the canyon.

Impacts to the bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon and osprey, including altered habitat, possible collision with cables and fabric panels leading to injury and death and disturbance to nesting birds have also been documented.

“There is also the question of what the project will do to the native trout. There are so many unanswered questions,” Anzelmo said. “I think that it’s just tragic that people don’t understand what the scale of this project is. It’s not about art. We don’t hate art. It’s about a federal agency violating laws and policy that it is bound to operate by.”

A project like this does not belong in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, says Mike Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.

“Outside of opening this area up for oil and gas drilling, there couldn’t be anything that could be much more disruptive to the landscape,” Harris said. “The court overlooked all of our zoning arguments and instead just agreed that the BLM had done an adequate environmental review, which is totally not what we are arguing.”

Harris is optimistic the appellate judges will see the merits of ROAR’s case, which he is approaching as a zoning case.

“If your city was zoned for parks and homes and all of a sudden City Council approved a high-impact, private shopping mall, it would be out of place. That’s why we have zoning laws, so we aren’t all over the board putting parks next to factories or schools next to liquor stores,” Harris explained. “Well it’s the same here—there is zoning that takes place on public lands. But the BLM—without changing the land-use plan—is approving a high-impact project that not only destroys the very wildlife that it is intending to be protected, but totally disrupts the low-key recreational setting for rafting, birdwatching, hiking, camping, etc.

“When BLM looked at this project 10 years before it was approved, the agency was very cold towards the project. It didn’t think it made a lot of sense. But year after year of Christo wining and dining state and federal officials, low and behold all of a sudden it was a good idea. Friends of Animals and ROAR disagree.”