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Know the West

Christo in Colorado would be a very good thing


Art, it has been said, provokes a response by revealing the familiar in new light. By that definition, "Over the River," the project on southern Colorado’s Arkansas River envisioned by artists Christo and Jeanne Claude, is already a success, even though it has yet to be approved and installation is almost four years away.

"Over the River" comprises seven miles of translucent fabric panels that would be suspended above the Arkansas River for two weeks in August 2009, along a 45-mile stretch of winding canyon, not far from my hometown of Salida.

Opponents fear the project will ruin a "pristine" river canyon, drive off bighorn sheep and other wildlife, cause traffic gridlock on the sole highway running through the canyon, prevent emergency vehicles from reaching accidents, medical emergencies, wildfires, crimes and even terrorist attacks, and cost the taxpayers an enormous sum of money.

Local supporters wax enthusiastic: "It’s an incredible opportunity for our valley," says Steve Reese of Friends of Over the River. "It’s just too good to pass up."

What is it about "Over the River" that provokes such a passionate response?

It could be the scale of the piece, which will employ 962 porous fabric panels as wide as 120 feet, attached to cables stretched high enough above the water to not snag passing boaters, and secured by some 2,400 removable bolts. The longest block of panels will extend 2.25 river miles, the shortest about half a mile.

True, the project is larger than their only other Colorado work, "Valley Curtain" near Rifle, which tore in 60 mile-per-hour gusts just 28 hours after it was erected, in 1972. After "Valley Curtain," the team beefed up its engineering for the 10 works that followed, including most recently, "The Gates" in New York’s Central Park.

It could be the potential for environmental damage. The Arkansas River canyon is a spectacular place with towering walls of crystalline rock, and rapids that attract hundreds of thousands of boaters during the two-month river-running season.

Neither river nor canyon is pristine, however: The transcontinental railroad blasted its way up one river bank in the late 1870s, and a federal highway first paved in the 1930s has radically re-shaped the other bank.

Unlike those projects, the artists propose a disappearing footprint for "Over the River": All waste, construction materials and trash will be hauled off, and special underground anchors will be invisible once the bolts are unscrewed.

It could be the wildlife, including some 400 bighorn sheep beloved of area residents. Yet it’s hard to imagine that wildlife would be fazed by the project’s dispersed construction. The sheep have managed to survive in the midst of decades of railroad-maintenance and highway-widening projects, diseases introduced from domestic livestock, booms in house construction and recreation, trapping and radio-collaring, a winter feeding program featuring an antibiotic-laced apple mash so intoxicating that the sheep often sleep it off after eating their fill, and the noise and pollution generated by hundreds of thousands of vehicles passing through the canyon each year.

It could be the traffic, which — no one disputes — will be horrendous, with an estimated quarter-million people coming to see "Over the River" in a two-week period.

Traffic snarls are not uncommon in the canyon: One wet spring, boxcar-sized chunks of cliff dropped on the highway, closing it entirely for weeks; another summer, road-widening projects impeded traffic for months. Christo and Jeanne Claude have hired traffic-planners and offered to explore mass transit, pay for helicopters, extra law-enforcement, fire-fighting and medical personnel, as well as to promote alternate routes.

It could be the money, though that will come entirely out of the artists’ pockets for an on-going environmental review, reimbursement of public-employee time and expenses for the 10 federal, state, and local entities involved in the project, from start to finish.

It could be the idea of all of this effort and expense going for something so ephemeral and quixotic as suspending panels of fabric over a river where they will shimmer and ripple for two weeks, reflecting water and sky and landscape in a way none of us have ever experienced before.

Whether the project makes it through the permitting process, it has already succeeded in engaging communities up and down the canyon, spurring us to talk about what we cherish. That, to my mind, is the whole point of art: It forces us to pay attention; it transforms our view of the everyday world.

Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Salida, Colorado.