The nature of nature

A public-lands art project begs the question


This is an election year, so there's plenty of controversy in my little mountain town of Salida, Colo. People talk about who should be county commissioner, sheriff or clerk. There's lots of discussion about a bond issue for a new high school.

But the major local contention, one that's been going on for years, is one that appears on no ballot, for we don't get to vote on it. That would be the "Over the River" project proposed by Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude, who died last November. They specialize in big projects, like installing 7,503 saffron walk-through panels in New York's Central Park, or wrapping the German parliament building, the Reichstag in Berlin, in a million square feet of polypropylene fabric.

Here they've proposed to suspend translucent fabric panels over 5.9 mountainous miles of the Arkansas River in a 42-mile stretch between Salida and Cañon City. It's not just a local issue; national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have written about it.

Since the project will involve public land, the federal Bureau of Land Management has become the lead agency, and it -- rather than local voters -- will make the decision after reviewing a 1,400-page Environmental Impact Statement released last summer, along with the hundreds of comments the proposal inspired.

The decision is supposed to be announced next February, and if it's approved, there will be about three years of construction, installation, and removal, along with two weeks of viewing the full display in the late summer of 2013.

The objections to Over the River focus on many factors, most of them legitimate grounds for concern: traffic congestion on U.S. 50, emergency access, construction-caused travel delays, effects on wildlife from the fish in the river to bighorn sheep on the ground to eagles in the air.

But there's a theme to many objections that I find bizarre. It goes something like this: "The valley between Salida and Cañon City is a grand work of nature, and it would be despoiled by some artificial installation, even a temporary project like Christo's."

Why is this a bizarre statement? Because the Arkansas River along that stretch, sometimes called Bighorn Sheep Canyon, is about as natural as an amusement park.

We can start with the river itself. Area rafting outfitters like to promote "the free-flowing Arkansas River." It is true that there's no dam across the main stem of the Arkansas above Pueblo Reservoir, which sits 25 miles downstream from Cañon City.

But the Arkansas's flows are augmented by two major diversions that import water from the Western Slope -- the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and the Twin Lakes Tunnel -- along with several smaller trans-basin diversions. All were built to serve downstream cities and farmers.

Most of its major tributaries (Busk Creek, Lake Creek, Clear Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Chalk Creek, South Arkansas) have dams and reservoirs. The river's flow is adjusted up to promote whitewater rafting from May to Aug. 15, then dropped to make life easier for spawning brown trout in the fall.

In other words, the very essence of the river -- the water flowing in its bed -- is a human artifact, not a phenomenon of raw nature.

As for those spawning brown trout -- the Arkansas here is a renowned brown-trout fishery -- they're human artifacts too. Most of them reproduce now without any help from hatcheries, but they were imported from Europe and introduced to Colorado in 1890. The "natural" trout (the greenback cut-throat) was exterminated from the Arkansas, partly by competition from the imported browns.

As for the bighorn sheep coming down to drink from the river, they're something of an artifact, too. Unlike the brown trout, they were native to the area. On Jan. 1, 1807, explorer Zebulon Pike was working his way down the river near Texas Creek. His journal says he "found on the way one of the mountain rams, which the doctor (J.H. Robinson) and (Pvt. John) Brown had killed and left on the road. Skinned it with horns, etc."

But after the Colorado gold rush of 1859 and ensuing settlement, the bighorns vanished from the valley, killed off by market hunters and diseases carried by domestic sheep. By 1950, the nearest herd was more than 20 miles away. Since 1980, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has performed a dozen bighorn transplants to restore sheep to the canyon. There's now a relatively stable population of about 520 in the area.

So the bighorns along the river are a result of human intervention aimed at reversing the extirpation caused by earlier human actions. And just how is this natural?

And as for observing the natural beauty along the Arkansas -- the cliffs and clefts of Precambrian granite, the Penn-Perm redbeds, the limestone and gypsum deposits -- that involves traveling through the canyon, which is hardly a natural corridor.

Let's go back to Pike, headed downstream from Salida on Dec. 27. 1806: "From there being no roads of buffalo, or signs of horses, I am convinced that neither these animals, nor the aborigines of the country, ever take this route, to go from the source of the river out of the mountains; but they must cross one of the chains to the right or left, and find a smoother tract to the lower country."

Pike was the second person to leave a written account of the area. The first was Juan Bautista de Anza, a New Mexico colonial governor who in 1779 led an 800-man army north from Santa Fe to punish Comanche raiders. Anza had Ute guides who knew better than to follow the river, and when he headed east from Salida, they avoided the canyon and swung through the hills to the north for “a smoother tract to the lower country.”

There were wagon and stagecoach routes developed to serve the mining camps that sprang up along the top of the Arkansas after the 1859 gold rush -- and those routes also avoided the canyon.

The canyon didn't become generally accessible until 1880 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad blasted a route through the Royal Gorge and on up the Arkansas. Until convict crews from the state penitentiary in Cañon City finished their work in 1915, the wagon and auto road bypassed most of the canyon.

Obviously, it's not a "natural" transportation corridor. That it is so accessible today is a human artifact, just like the flow of the river, the fish within it, and the wildlife on its banks. It's an area with soaring mountain views, exciting float trips, great fishing and abundant wildlife -- all the result of human activity, rather than “nature.”

Whether Christo's project would add or detract from that is a fair question, but it's a question about yet another human project. It's not about “nature,” for in a strictly natural state, the canyon would be inaccessible and we wouldn't have this controversy.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer and columnist in Salida, Colorado.

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