Biocreativity on the Road: Over The River, in Colorado

Let’s talk landscape ecology today. And contemporary art. In fact, let’s talk about an art project so big, it’s been over 20 years in the making, and it’s the only one to have ever received a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Just last fall, the Bureau of Land Management gave their final approval for the Over The River project, a temporary art exhibition that will suspend 5.9 miles of translucent fabric over a 42 mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. Known for their large-scale structure and monument wrappings, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of Over The River in 1992 and have since been working on details of the project, which include an incredibly lengthy design and permitting process.

OTR is a curious case-study in environmental policy. The federal EIS conducted for this temporary art project was financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a process that often happens without much public attention when it comes to more routinely-conducted activities on public land. The BLM allows many activities conducted by private entities on public lands including livestock grazing, oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing), mining and logging on public lands in the region. Most of these projects have not been subject the level of public scrutiny that OTR seems to have received. Nevertheless, Christo continues pursuit of the remaining permits to make OTR a reality. Christo paid for the EIS at an expense to himself of over $6 million, which was conducted over a 2.5 year period by a team of engineers, wildlife biologists and environmental consultants. The plans for OTR now include scheduling the two-week temporary exhibition to avoid major wildlife migrations, nesting seasons and to minimize noise and disturbance in any one place on the river to a minimum during the construction and take-down process.

Christo Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007 in two parts: 77,5 x 30,5 and 77,5 and 66,7 cm (30 1/2″ x 12″ and 30 1/2″ x 26 1/4″) Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, hand-drawn topography map, fabric sample and tape. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz © Christo 2007.

Interestingly, the NEPA review process calls for environmental design arts and aesthetics to be considered in EIS reviews. As former National Director of the Bureau of Land management Patrick Shea explained in a 2010 letter to the director of the Colorado State Office of the BLM:

“It is striking to remember that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) itself provides that it is the Federal Government’s responsibility to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings”. In order to do this, NEPA states that the federal Government must “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making which may have an impact on man’s environment.”

Despite widespread public support for Over The River, there is some opposition to this project from a small local group which seems to simply not want the temporary art exhibition of this scale in their own backyard. Curious to view the area myself, I drove alongside the Arkansas River on my way to Taylor Park Reservoir, Colorado this summer. As I paralleled the Arkansas, I encountered prospectors searching for gold, anglers hopeful for trout, rafting outfitters guiding the adventuresome, cattle grazing, ATV and motorbike trails, freight traffic, agricultural fields and even quarries. And, if you care to look past the immediate roadside to the adjacent landscape, the list of proposed private uses of BLM land out of the Royal Gorge Field Office (can anyone direct me to the list of current uses?) indeed includes energy trasmission, private development right-of-ways, oil and gas development, coal leasing, mining, cattle grazing and christmas tree harvesting.

Why then, I wonder, does the Over The River project seem to have been singled out as a “disturbance of the peace” by a handful of locals? There are certainly activities on our public lands that are much more disturbing to the local ecosystem and to wildlife, including ones with much more long-term consequences than the proposed Over The River project. Is it because Colorado has a long history with mining, fossil fuel extraction, ranching and agriculture? Are these activities therefore more comfortable, commonplace, and acceptable by local residents, despite our current knowledge of how they affect our environment? Is it because art is a much less common use of our public land? Yet, Colorado also has a long and rich history of art, from the artistic traditions of Colorado’s Native American cultures to nineteenth-century geological survey photographer William Henry Jackson and contemporary photographer John Fielder, whose comparative approach to photography has explored how the Colorado landscape has changed since Jackson’s first forays in to the western wilderness (see Colorado 1870-2000). Whatever the reason, just imagine if all activities by private entities on our public lands were held to such a level of public scrutiny as Christo’s temporary art exhibition. It seems that our public lands would be much different places. What do you think?

Over The River Life-Sized Test for aesthetic and technical considerations, four life-sized prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property on the Utah/Colorado border. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz, © Christo 1999

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, however, are no strangers to opposition of their monumental-scale works. “This has happened before,” Christo recently told the Denver Post, “This is a natural process for which we are very familiar.” They seem accustomed to the lengthy permitting processes that accompany their projects, and demonstrate a love of their work, an admiration for public discourse and a level of patience that is itself quite admirable. A recent update from the OTR project page indicates that on-the-ground activities will be delayed yet again, perhaps until August 2015, because of ongoing litigation by a local group against two of the agencies that have approved the project (the BLM and the Colorado State Parks).

The opposition remains small, however, and the Over The River project has gained an incredible list of supporters including the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce and City Council, current and former governors of Colorado and the Colorado Council for the Arts, to name just a few. Since Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, her husband Christo remains dedicated to making Over The River a reality. As an art lover and former Colorado resident, I can’t wait to write a future On The Road post along the Arkansas River, under the shimmering canopy of Over The River. Until then, here is Christo in 2010 talking about the origins of the project back in 1975 as he and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris:

Over The River perfectly reflects the type of artistic, social, and cultural engagement that public art seeks to create. Public art such as Over The River is by definition meant to provoke reaction by engaging the public outside the framework of a traditional artistic exhibition — outside of the four walls of a museum, and outside of the four corners of a painting.” – Patrick Shea, Former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management

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