SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The artist Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, are famous for works that are measured in miles; pathways of flapping, flame-colored gates in Central Park, thousands of umbrellas scattered along the coasts of California and Japan. He's long had his eye on central Colorado. For more than a decade, Christo has worked to bring one of his massive installations to the Arkansas River there.
But as Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports, for many locals, Christo's artistic vision feels more like a nightmare.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: It's called "Over the River." So why don't we start with the river? Here in Bighorn Sheep Canyon, it's a chuckling ribbon of water with a highway running alongside. Christo wants to drape sections of it, almost six miles of it, with long billowing panels of silvery fabric.
CHRISTO: And the silver-color fabric panel will absorb the color. In the morning, become rosy, in the middle of the day platinum and the sunset, the fabric will become golden.
VERLEE: It's been 16 years since the Bulgarian-born artist picked Bighorn Canyon for this piece. It's taken that long to slowly accumulate the needed permits and permissions, a process financed by selling preparatory sketches. But as Christo told a panel of county commissioners when he came to ask for their blessing earlier this month...
CHRISTO: All that is part of the work of art. The work of art involves everything. People who dislike or like the project, they're part of the work of art.
DR. ELLEN BAUDER: I don't particularly consider it an art project. This is a construction project in my view.
VERLEE: Ellen Bauder is a leading member of a group opposing the project, ROAR, or Rags Over the Arkansas River. Evidence of their fight is everywhere in her home office - "Over the River" files scattered across the floor, boxes of press clippings in the corner.
BAUDER: If you want to get up for just a second, I want to show you something. Draft, Environmental Impact Statement.
VERLEE: How tall would you estimate that is?
BAUDER: Oh, probably about seven inches maybe.
VERLEE: Bauder's read it cover to cover, and she finds a lot 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.
BAUDER: There are going to be stoppages, lane closures. And so people are concerned about home health care, about deliveries, about the sheriff or an ambulance being able to get to them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHY FOOTSTEPS)
RON MCFARLAND: That's our mule deer, their coming down to the water.
VERLEE: Opponent Ron McFarland stands on bank of the Arkansas River. He worries what will happen to those animals - and to the canyon's namesake bighorn sheep - during the construction process.
MCFARLAND: 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.
VERLEE: And not for the better, says McFarland. That's why 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 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.
ANDY NEINAS: 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.
VERLEE: Those are the two towns on either end of the canyon.
Economics, though, aren't the only thing Neinas is excited about. The fabric panels are designed to be seen from underneath, by rafters - trips he looks forward to leading.
NEINAS: You know, I've spent quite a bit of time trying to see the joy and imagine what this project will be like. But I don't think you can fully appreciate it until you're actually in it.
VERLEE: If the courts and permitting agencies agree, construction could start this fall. If they don't, as an artist, Christo's made a career of outlasting refusals. But he's also 76 years old now. So "Over the River," if it happens, could be one of the final works of his career.
For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee.
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