State Lands board approves leases before feds make final decision
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Controversy continues to swirl around the proposed Over The River installation proposed by artists Christo and Jean Claude for the Arkansas River Valley.
This week, the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners approved two leases necessary for the installation — even before the Bureau of Land Management has made a final decision on the project, and as local opponents sue to prevent what they call a devastating public lands disaster.
“It’s a tragedy that they’ve totally caved in to Christo,” said Dan Ainsworth, head of an opposition group called Rags Over the Arkansas River. “Public officials are ignoring their responsibility as stewards of public lands,” he said.
Over The River has been pitched as a temporary art project that would build and display 5.9 miles of fabric panels suspended above the Arkansas River along a 42-mile stretch of the waterway between Salida and Canon City. The fabric would remain for two weeks in August of 2014 at the earliest and then be removed.
The State Land Board approved a five-year, 7.7-acre lease with the Over The River Corporation that would allow the installation, exhibition, and removal of fabric panels on state trust land. It also approved a 10-year, 130-acre lease with Colorado Parks and Wildlife for creation of a wildlife corridor and alternative habitat on state trust land designed to mitigate impacts from the project to bighorn sheep.
The Bureau of Land Management in July released a Final Environmental Impact Statement for Over The River with a preferred alternative identifying eight panel segments totaling 5.9 miles over a 42- mile stretch of the Arkansas. The BLM is expected to issue a Record of Decision approving or rejecting the Over The River application this fall.
Meanwhile, two angling outfitters who operate on the river filed a July 22 lawsuit charging that the Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation violated its own regulations by permitting the Over the River Corporation to use the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Parks facilities, for the project.
The Parks Board’s June decision is the project’s first approval for suspending several tons of fabric panels on 1,100 steel cables over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River, one of Colorado’s most scenic and most popular locales for fishing, rafting, hiking, and wildlife viewing.
Ainsworth said many supporters of the project don’t realize that to support the cables and fabric, Over the River will drive more than 9,000 industrial rock bolts deep into the canyon walls with industrial equipment normally used for heavy construction activities.
“The Parks Board approved a project that will cause severe environmental harms on public lands and resources,” Ainsworth said. “There’s a reason that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission doesn’t allow any surface activities in this area. The valuable fisheries, vulnerable bighorn sheep population, and the economic life of canyon residents and businesses just can’t take industrial impacts. Why the Parks Board would allow such damaging drilling for a temporary art project is beyond comprehension.
“The Parks Board side-stepped their own process to approve the agreement,” Ainsworth added, explaining that the lawsuit alleges that State Parks violated the law when it approved the project via a “memorandum of agreement.”
“State Parks’ own regulations say this kind of project requires a special activity permit and a lot of public consultation, not a rushed MOA. But according to its special activity permit rules, the Board can’t legally permit a project this damaging to the environment and public safety.”
Ainsworth said that, in exchange for its use of the State Parks facilities along the Arkansas River, OTR Corp. will pay the cash-strapped agency $550,000.
The installation has institutional support from state government agencies and from some rafting outfitters, who see a potential windfall, but Ainsworth said local residents of the area oppose it 20 to one. He claims that state agencies have ceded almost total control over the river to Christo during the construction and display phase and charges that state agencies have abdicated their responsibilities to steward Colorado’s natural resources on behalf of the state’s people.
Filed under: Colorado, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado State Parks, Environment Tagged: | Arkansas River, Bureau of Land management, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Colorado, Environment, Over the River, Rags Over the Arkansas River