How Christo's opponents can change your mind

  • Ed Quillen

 

Early in November, the Bureau of Land Management approved plans for an immense art installation called "Over the River," which involves suspending translucent fabric panels across 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River in central Colorado.

The artist behind Over the River's two-week existence in 2014 is Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude. They specialize in big and temporary outdoor art -- like wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin, shrouding the gap in Rifle, Colo., or hanging hundreds of bright orange gateways through New York's Central Park. So far Christo has put $11 million into Over the River, though it isn't quite a done deal.

Permits are still required from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the two involved counties of Chaffee and Fremont. Opponents have also sued the Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, charging that the board violated its regulations when it agreed to allow Christo to use certain park facilities.

All told, though, if I had to bet on Over the River, I'd put my money on "Yes, it'll happen." For one thing, it's been endorsed by the state and federal governments, by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. And though I felt viscerally opposed to the project when I first heard about it 15 years ago, the more I hear from opponents of Over the River, the more I want to support it.

For instance, some opponents indulge in apocalyptic rhetoric, as with this statement from a group dubbed ROAR, which stands for Rags Over the Arkansas River: "Prevent the destruction of the Bighorn Sheep Canyon of the Arkansas River in Colorado!"

"Bighorn Sheep Canyon" is a relatively recent (about 25 years ago) appellation for the canyon between Salida and the Royal Gorge. The canyon has a thriving imported bighorn herd. Or it used to. The bighorns seem to have moved elsewhere.

What's more, even if Christo's fabric curtains collapse or blow away moments after they're installed, and even if traffic gets bottlenecked for hours or days during prime viewing time, the canyon will still be there. There would still be a gash in the mountains. A dam might cause "the destruction of Bighorn Sheep Canyon," but nothing in Christo's plans could destroy the canyon.

That hyperbole is from some of the more reputable opponents at ROAR. As for the less reputable, if you read the letters section of the local paper, you start wondering what planet some people live on. It is true that to anchor the cables that will hold the fabric over the river, Christo's crews will drill holes in the rocky river bank. They'll pour concrete and install hardware in those holes, which will be covered up when the project is done.

But according to one letter, all that drilling could cause a major earthquake. The geologic mechanism wasn't explained in the letter, however, and geologists tell me this is a fairly stable section of the earth's crust. Even so, we've been advised to watch out for an 8.5 on the Richter scale as soon as Christo's workers start drilling. It is odd, though, that when the Colorado highway department blasts and sets rock anchors in that very same canyon, no earthquakes occur.

Then there was the fellow who said Over the River is an al Qaeda plot. The terrorists would attract a crowd with the draped river, and then attack the crowd with a bomb. We were warned that al Qaeda already has a picture of the Fremont County sheriff.

So do I. It took less than 20 seconds to use Google to find that department's web site, which has a picture of Sheriff Jim Beicker. As for the rest, wouldn't it be simpler for al Qaeda to find something like a sold-out stadium, rather than drivers strung out along 46 miles of highway?

Then there's the talk of preserving the "pristine" canyon, even though it sports a highway, railroad and lots of old mines, quarries and kilns along with modern power lines, roadside stands and subdivisions. Trying to preserve this commercial corridor as a "natural" canyon is sort of like trying to preserve Lindsay Lohan's virtue.

Then there are those who care for the canyon by saying "No" to Christo while living in its midst and every day driving 75 miles through it to go to work and back home.

Add this up, and it's easy to see how Christo's opponents make some of us converts: We used to be dubious about Over the River, but now we're supporters.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and columnist for the Denver Post in Salida, Colorado.

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