Environmental activists team up to battle a famous environmental artist—not your everyday face-off. Unless, that is, the artist is Christo. A recent federal district court case pitted his proposed “Over the River” project against the activist group ROAR (Rags Over the Arkansas River). The $50 million installation would temporarily suspend 5.9 miles of translucent silver fabric panels along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, much of which is federally-protected habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles.
Law students from Denver University’s Environmental Law Clinic filed the civil case on behalf of ROAR. The students argued that The Bureau of Land Management, in approving “Over the River” in 2011, violated both the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. ROAR objects to the potential environmental damage to be caused during the installation process due to the 9,100 holes that will be dug by 3,000 workers over a period of 27 months. Digging 9,100 holes, some of them as much as 30 feet deep, would be no different than drilling 9,100 oil wells, according to Denver University law professor Michael Harris.
In addition to the ecological damage inflicted by the installation of “Over the River,” ROAR is concerned about the impact of the 400,000 tourists projected to visit the site over the two-week period that “Over the River” will be up. “ROAR’s members know first-hand the incomparable values of the Arkansas River and the sensitive Bighorn Sheep Canyon they call home,” the group wrote. “They, better than any others, know it is worth fighting even a massive Washington D.C. bureaucracy and a famous artist who does not care one bit about how his project will hurt people, wildlife, the land and the river.”
Christo, for his part, is optimistic. In a statement released on January 5, he wrote, “I was always confident the court would uphold the BLM’s actions because the Environmental Impact Statement conducted by the BLM was thorough and comprehensive. We have one appeal in state court still outstanding, but today we took a significant step forward in realizing ‘Over the River.’ Originally planned for exhibition in August of 2014, Christo has postponed the project because of the litigation. The final outstanding case is an appeal filed by ROAR in 2013, after their suit against the Colorado Parks, which co-manages the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area with the BLM, was dismissed.