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Environmental Civil War over Art

By Geoff Grant – Zoe Environmental Editor

Sketches for Christo’s project “Over the River.” Christo and a small army of construction workers and engineers will use almost six miles’ worth of silvery fabric that will shelter the river in various places over a 42-mile-long area between Salida and Cañon City.

This Week in Green – Jan. 3, 2011

For every action, there’s a reaction, Part I. And when that action involves the artist Christo, reaction is often loud and emotional.

Christo, the artist who specializes in massive conceptual environmental art — see the Gates, Pont Neuf, the Reichstag, Surrounded Islands and Valley Curtain, just for starters — is at it again, this time with a proposed project called “Over the River” in southern Colorado.

“Surrounded Islands” – an earlier Christo project in Biscayne Bay, Florida

As with his other projects, there are many people who object. What makes this particular situation unique, though, is that it has pitted environmentalists against environmentalists, cleaving longtime allies.

Some local environmentalists have been opposed to Christo’s proposed installation, which would suspend fabric over nearly 6 miles of the Arkansas River. (For those geographically challenged, yes, the Arkansas River runs through Colorado.) They say the project would harm the environment and spoil the natural beauty for years — the installation wouldn’t open until the summer of 2014.

But when the Sierra Club endorsed the project and the Colorado state chapter declined to take a stand, an environmental civil war was started.

Ellen Bauder, a 40-year member of the Sierra Club, said she believed the project is at odds with the organization’s mission: “No organization devoted to preservation and protection of the natural environment can support this project and still be true to that mission.”

For now, whether the project is greenlighted depends on the Bureau of Land Management, which is expected to make a decision this spring.

The two sides, though, might try finding a way to leverage the attention that Christo’s artwork would generate and use the opportunity to boost their cause. Perhaps all those who visit the installation could be urged to donate to preserving national parkland or something similar.

Art highlighting nature is scarce enough. Christo’s project could be an opportunity to make something good come out of it.

Already, the publicity has created a dialogue about the issues, which Christo himself pointed out.

“By discussing the work of art they become part of the work of art,” he said. “They make it more important.”