Bighorn Sheep Canyon in Colorado holds a chuckling ribbon of water, with a highway running alongside. Artist Christo wants to drape sections of it — almost 6 miles' worth — with long, billowing panels of silvery fabric.
"The silver-color fabric panel will absorb the color," he says. "In the morning, it will become rosy, in the middle of the day, platinum, and [during] the sunset, the fabric will become golden."
Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, are famous for works measured in miles: pathways of flapping, flame-colored gates in Central Park, thousands of umbrellas scattered along the coasts of California and Japan. For many locals, however, Christo's artistic vision for the Arkansas River feels more like a nightmare.
It has been 16 years since the Bulgarian-born artist picked Bighorn Canyon for this piece, called Over the River. It has taken that long to slowly accumulate the needed permits and permissions, a process financed by selling preparatory sketches. "All that is part of the work of art," Christo told a panel of county commissioners earlier this month.
"The work of art involves everything. People who dislike or like the project, they're part of the work of art," he said.
Ellen Bauder disagrees. "I don't particularly consider it an art project. This is a construction project in my view," she says. Bauder is a leading member of a group called Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, which opposes the project.
Evidence of ROAR's fight is everywhere in Bauder's home office, with Over the River files scattered across the floor and boxes of media clippings in the corner.
Bauder has read the draft of the environmental impact statement cover to cover, and she says the 7-inch-thick document is lacking. Construction of Over the River will require a lot of heavy equipment working off and on for two years. A single highway runs the length of the canyon, the only easy access for the 5,000 or so folks who live there.
"There are going to be stoppages, lane closures," she says, "and so people are concerned about home health care, about deliveries, about the sheriff or an ambulance being able to get to them."
Fellow opponent Ron McFarland worries about what will happen to the mule deer and to the canyon's namesake bighorn sheep during the construction process.
"If you like nature pretty much as it is, having an industrial-scale project come in here for a period of time will forever change it," he says.
That change will not be for the better, McFarland says. He and other opponents are lobbying local county commissioners to turn down Christo, and they're suing the Bureau of Land Management for issuing a permit in the first place.
However, many people in the region are excited about the project. They're looking forward to the massive economic infusion from years of construction jobs. Rafting company owner Andy Neinas says Over the River could be a lasting boost for tourism in a region that needs the help.
"This is a small, rural Colorado town. This is real Colorado. You want to see where the real Coloradans live, you come to Canon City or Salida," he says. Those are the towns on either end of the canyon.
Economics aren't the only thing exciting Neinas, though. The fabric panels also are designed to be viewed from underneath by rafters — trips he looks forward to leading.
"You know, I've spent quite a bit of time trying to see and imagine and enjoy what this project will be like," he says, "but I don't think you can fully appreciate it until you're actually in it."
If the courts and permit agencies agree, construction could start this fall. If they don't, Christo has made a career of outlasting refusals. But he's also 76 years old. If Over the River happens, it could be one of the final works of his career.
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