DENVER — Federal regulators on Monday approved a $50 million installation of anchored fabric over the Arkansas River in southern Colorado by the artist Christo, whose larger-than-life vision has divided environmentalists, residents and politicians for years over questions of aesthetics, nature and economic impact.
The project, “Over the River,” will include eight suspended panel segments totaling 5.9 miles along a 42-mile stretch of the river, about three hours southwest of Denver. Construction could begin next year, pending final local approvals, with the goal being a two-week display of the work as early as August 2014.
“Drawing visitors to Colorado to see this work will support jobs in the tourism industry and bring attention to the tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “We believe that steps have been taken to mitigate the environmental effects of this one-of-a-kind project.”
Christo, 76, said in an interview that the project had already made history for its interconnection of art and public participation, with a federal environmental impactstatement that drew thousands of comments.
Christo’s projects — from the wrapping of the ReichstagParliament building in Berlin in 1995 to “The Gates,” a meandering path of orange awnings through Central Park in New York in 2005 — have often generated heated debate in advance of their creation.
“We are elated,” Christo said. “Every artist in the world likes his or her work to make people think. Imagine how many people were thinking, how many professionals were thinking and writing in preparing that environmental impact statement.”
Permits are still needed from Fremont and Chaffee Counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the State Patrol. But Christo emphasized that those agencies had been working with the federal government all through the environmental impact study and were involved in shaping the mitigation measures included in Monday’s decision.
Federal officials said that “Over the River” could generate $121 million in economic output and draw 400,000 visitors, both during the construction — which could become its own tourist event — and the display itself.
Points of contention and controversy ranged from road safety in the narrow canyon highway through the installation zone, which extends from the towns of Salida to Cañon City, to potential impacts on wildlife, especially on the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that habituate the Arkansas River canyon and are Colorado’s state mammal.
In May, the Colorado Wildlife Commission, an advisory panel to the state’s Division of Parks and Wildlife, urged federal officials to reject Christo’s proposal, specifically citing its concerns about the sheep, and whether the chaos and traffic of construction could keep them from crucial water sources. A local opposition group complained in August that federal regulators were being unduly swayed by Christo, and that phrases like “artistic vision” in the impact study, rather than neutral terms like “proposed project,” suggested a predisposition to let him have his way.
The decision announced Monday spelled out measures to protect the sheep, including restricting activity in lambing season and a Bighorn Sheep Adaptive Management Fund, paid for by Christo, who is covering the full cost of the project via the sale of his work.