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Environmentalists clash over giant art project in Colorado

Some fume at a Sierra Club group's OK for a plan to hang fabric over 5.9 miles of river canyon.

December 27, 2010|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Canon City, Colo. — They've got trouble right here along the banks of the Arkansas River.

It all has to do with the artist Christo, whose lavish and iconoclastic installations invariably create controversy wherever unfurled. And in this postcard-pretty corner of Colorado, about 115 miles south of Denver, renowned for fly fishing, whitewater rafting and the vertigo-inducing Royal Gorge suspension bridge, it is no different.

For 18 years the artist has had his sights on a stretch of river that runs through Big Horn Sheep Canyon between Canon City and Salida for a project he calls "Over the River." The proposed installation would suspend translucent panels of fabric over 5.9 miles of the river in staggered intervals, visible from U.S. Highway 50 and by rafters floating underneath.

It would be the latest installation by the man who wrapped Berlin's Reichstag building in fabric and erected 1,760 giant yellow umbrellas in California's Tejon Pass.

If approved, "Over the River" would open in summer 2014 for two weeks. It would take two years to build and cost at least $50 million (Christo says he is already in for $7 million). The Bureau of Land Management is expected to decide the project's fate in the spring.

Skepticism, resistance and even anger aimed at his project were expected, Christo said in a telephone interview, adding that he considered local contentiousness part of the artistic process. "By discussing the work of art they become part of the work of art," he said. "They make it more important."

But what nobody saw coming here was how environmentalists — typically in agreement on such things — would turn on each other.

Ellen Bauder, a 40-year member of the Sierra Club, is now rethinking her membership after the club's Sangre de Cristo group in August chose to support the Christo project. She is also incensed that the Sierra Club's statewide chapter has declined to take a stand.

"The project is completely at odds with the [Sierra Club's] mission," said Bauder, a Salida resident who holds a doctorate in plant ecology and is an expert in land use. "No organization devoted to preservation and protection of the natural environment can support this project and still be true to that mission."

Carol Neville, a fly fishing guide, standing near the river bank in hip waders, held a fistful of traffic projections, environmental impact reports and economic studies. "I am so angry," she said, her voice trembling, "People think we're a bunch of Podunk hicks who don't appreciate 'art.' This is about my life. This is my home. Who is going to be the resident guardians of the environment if not people like me?"

Neville and Bauder are part of a coalition of activists and regional environmental groups lobbying the Bureau of Land Management to stop the project. They have such names as Colorado Wild, the Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR. Many expected the Sierra Club, the granddaddy of them all, to march with them. They talk a lot about betrayal these days.

Those who oppose Christo's project say the congestion along the narrow highway would be dangerous, the traffic delays during construction would hurt businesses and that the years of commotion would spook the area's bighorn sheep.

They have cast themselves in a David and Goliath struggle against not only the larger Sierra Club, but also state and local politicians, the area's artists, Chamber of Commerce types, river outfitters and even the local ambulance company, all of whom back the project for its artistic merit and the boost it would bring to a recession-strapped tourist trade.

Ross Vincent, a retired chemical engineer who is chairman of the Sierra Club's Sangre de Cristo group, acknowledges being taken aback by the vehemence of the attacks not only on his 700-member group but against him personally by other environmental groups in the area. He even received an e-mail accusing him of taking bribes from Christo's people. "I told them they should be very careful about accusations being made in public," he said.

He remains puzzled by the fuss, saying he has yet to be convinced there would be any lasting damage to the environment or wildlife. "It will be a hassle for some people, but it won't last forever," he said.

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