Students in the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law on Feb. 1 filed suit in federal court to block “Over the River,” an industrial-scale art project by the well-known artist Christo that was approved in November by the Bureau of Land Management.
The project proposes hanging aluminum-coated material over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado, in scattered sections over a 42-mile stretch.
The suit was filed against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on behalf of the grassroots, all-volunteer citizen group Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), whose members are dedicated to preserving and protecting the headwaters of the Arkansas River and Bighorn Sheep Canyon. The group opposes the project, citing numerous environmental issues and dangers to the residents of and visitors to the area. The suit was filed by third-year law students Mason Brown and Justine Shepherd, under the guidance of law Professor Michael Harris.
The team, joined by ROAR spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo, entered the suit at the federal courthouse in Denver then addressed reporters gathered outside.
“The BLM is charged with protecting our public land resources through extensive land management plans,” Shepherd said. “However, by permitting this project, the BLM is ignoring its obligation to the public. The Over The River project flies in the face of the BLM’s land use plan.”
According to the suit, the project will be built almost entirely within the federally designated Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern, key habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, the symbol of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado’s official state animal. And the stretch of the Arkansas River running through the area is among the most popular rafting rivers in the world and is designated by the state as the most popular river for fishing in Colorado.
Construction of the Over the River project will take some 28 months, with another three to 12 months to take down, the suit alleges. It will require an estimated 3,000 crew work days and involve drilling up to 35 feet into bedrock to anchor some 9,000 industrial bolts and anchors, most of which will be left behind when the project is over. Work could make bighorn sheep susceptible to disease and could disturb and otherwise harm other endangered and threatened species, including peregrine falcons and bald and golden eagles.
In addition, construction and demolition includes the use of equipment commonly used in mining and road building, including hydraulic drills, long-reach excavators, wheeled excavators, boom truck cranes, grouters, air compressors, water tanks, grout mixers, support trailers, steel rock anchors, and anchor frames.
Anzelmo said in addition to wanting to protect the delicate environment and endangered and threatened species in the area, her group is representing the people who live in the area that will be affected. Their voices, she said, have been largely ignored.
She said ROAR’s battle is a classic David and Goliath struggle, with residents, fishermen, hunters, boaters and tourists facing off against the massive resources of Christo’s financial backers and the Bureau of Land Management.
“We are hoping to vanquish the giant with the help of these great students from the University of Denver,” she said. “The BLM is ignoring its duty to the public.”
Harris said too little has been made of the massive impact the project will have. While many perceive the project as just a two-week exhibit featuring some material hoisted above the river, it is really more like a heavy industrial operation that will span years and leave permanent scars on the land.
“Christo has been able to work the system,” Harris said. “He’s been able to convince people that this is just a two-week period that will be so beneficial for the people of Colorado.”