Controversy and art often go hand in hand, and the proposed "Over The River" project in central Colorado is no exception. In this case, it's the medium rather than the message that has people up in arms.


The artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who use only single names, are known for large-scale temporary exhibits spanning natural or urban features. This time, they've got their eye on the Arkansas River. They want to suspend translucent fabric over four to six miles of river between Caûon City and Salida.


Critics have raised environmental and safety concerns over the colossal work of art. The network of fabric and supporting cables worries wildlife managers, and biologists are studying the effects of crowds on a declining herd of bighorn sheep.


"The nightmare that I see is trying to manage the people," says Pete Zwaneveld of the Bureau of Land Management. A narrow two-lane highway with few turnouts and steep eroding hillsides is the only access to the river.


"I'd just as soon not see it to avoid all the headaches," concludes Zwaneveld. The agency is requiring an environmental assessment for the project before it decides whether to grant a special-use permit to the artists.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude are addressing these issues, says Tom Golden, project director for "Over The River." They've hired a private firm to complete the environmental assessment and are conducting extensive tests on the fabric. "If there was something not correct, they would not do the project," he says.


Michael Becker, a Coaldale resident and self-described "Joe Blow" protesting the project, fears a catastrophe. He points to the artists' ill-fated Valley Curtain in Rifle Gap, Colo., which was blown down and scattered by an unexpected gale-force wind. "What happens when the "Over The River" project becomes the "In The River" dam?" he asks.


*Catherine Lutz