Editor’s Note: A planned project by the artist Christo that involves suspending fabric panels over stretches of the Arkansas River in Colorado has prompted a citizen’s group and two fly-fishing businesses to file a lawsuit against the Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), and ArkAnglers and the Arkansas River Fly Shop claim the two-week exhibition in 2014 will impact the environment and recreation on the popular fishery. The Bureau of Land Management has released a final environmental impact statement, and could make a final decision on approval later this year or early next year.
The industrial-scale art project proposed by the artist Christo Javacheff and his Over the River Corporation (OTR) will significantly impact the Arkansas River corridor from Salida, Colo., downstream to Canon City.
The artist proposes to suspend 5.9 miles of fabric panels over several segments of a 45-mile reach of the river, eight to 20 feet off the surface in areas of prized public fishing access.
In order to anchor the cables that will support the fabric, OTR must drill 9,100 anchor holes within and adjacent to the riparian zone. These holes must be drilled by large industrial machines that require hazardous and toxic fluids to operate and maintain.
Most of the anchors will be left behind, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The holes will be grouted in with the rock dust generated from the drilling and mortar to match the surrounding rocks.
This is being proposed for an area of Bighorn Sheep Canyon that the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission has designated a no-drill zone, because of a fragile Bighorn Sheep population. And according to the FEIS, “Restoration of native habitats, specifically riparian and wetland habitats, may extend beyond five years.”
During the construction, exhibition, and dismantling phases of the project, an estimated three year period, no pedestrian access will be allowed half a mile upstream and downstream of the sites. This includes wade fishing access.
According to the FEIS, “Recreational angling will be significantly affected in an adverse way.”
ArkAnglers has attempted to resolve fishery health and public fishing access issues with Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and Colorado Division of Wildlife (recently combined as the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife). Both agencies have acknowledged the negative impacts but have failed to address them.
ArkAnglers has made repeated attempts to discuss these important issues with the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM has never returned any of our calls and did not adequately address our written comments.
We believe strongly that the fishery and the angling public are going to be hurt if this project is approved. We also believe that the BLM has marginalized the angling public and has overlooked the needs of the fishery. This is unacceptable.
As a result of the response received from state and federal government, ArkAnglers became a party to a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Natural Resources regarding the manner in which their representatives negotiated a deal with the Over The River Corporation.
Simply put, OTR committed to pay $550,000 toward the costs Parks will incur managing their project and Colorado State Parks agreed to allow them free reign in Bighorn Sheep Canyon.
We believe the State Parks Board erred when they signed this Memorandum of Agreement with OTR, applying a more lenient standard to OTR than they do to rafting or fishing outfitters when analyzing the environmental impacts of the proposal.
We are asking the judge for a level playing field, to require OTR to adhere to the same standards and practices to which we are held, and to ensure all impacts are mitigated and that existing holders of Special Use Agreements with Colorado State Parks are not adversely affected by the permitting of this new activity in Bighorn Sheep Canyon.
In response to a recent email from us, and to a story about our lawsuit that went out on the AP wire, many of our guests and customers have contacted us, asking how they can help protect the fishery and the fishing experience in the canyon. We think there is still a window of opportunity to influence the outcome of this situation.
Prior to the merger of Colorado State Parks and Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Wildlife Commission sent a letter to the BLM admonishing them for considering this project despite the significant impacts projected for bighorn sheep, raptors, fishery health, angling access, and to the “fishing industry.”
Shortly thereafter, the State Parks Board entered into the previously described Memorandum of Agreement with OTR. There seemed to be a tacit understanding between the two bodies that each had spoken on the issue and that was the end of it, as if a peaceful beginning for the entity that resulted from their merger was more important than the substantive issues that each body had previously faced.
With our lawsuit in place, however, the Parks and Wildlife Commission will be forced to revisit the issue and therein lies the opportunity for influence.
We encourage interested individuals to contact members of the Commission, to thank the former Wildlife Commission members for the stand they took and encourage them to hold their ground, and to question the former Parks Board members on their support of the MOA with Over The River Corporation.
This is a time-sensitive matter, because the combined commission is scheduled to meet and discuss this lawsuit Sept. 15-16 in Colorado Springs.
Christo Javacheff, President of the Over the River Corporation, had this to say about the recent BLM issuance of a Final Environmental Impact Statement: “This is a significant milestone for us and for artists everywhere who want to create art on public lands.”
Even if you rarely get to fish the Arkansas, you may find projects of similar impact proposed for your home waters as a result of this approval. It is ironic, though, that given the millions of acres of public land that may be available to artists for projects like this, Christo chose the Arkansas River corridor.
Not only does it suit his palette, it is also the most popular whitewater river in the world, with more than 200,000 commercially outfitted guests in 2010.
And a recent Division of Wildlife Colorado Angler Survey found the Arkansas River to be the most popular moving water fishery in the state.
We hope that this natural resource management travesty can be avoided.
Greg Felt is co-owner of the fishing outfitters and retail shop business, ArkAnglers, in Buena Vista, Colo., and Rod Patch is owner of the retail Arkansas River Fly Shop in Salida, Colo., and ArkAnglers partner. This article appeared on FlyRod&Reel Online, and is republished here with permission.