Just Say No? Opponents of ‘Over the River’ Speak Out

By Greg Felt and Ellen Bauder

In 1992, Christo Javacheff had a vision. In it, he saw translucent polypropylene fabric panels suspended above a river as it flowed through a spectacular Western landscape. Studying maps, he considered several potential locations before settling on the Bighorn Sheep Canyon of the Arkansas. There he found soaring canyon walls and a well-watered river, a corridor with highway access on one side and a railroad on the other, towns at both ends that embraced a future in the arts, and a proximity to population centers and airports. With the wide following and notoriety generated by his previous projects, Mr. Javacheff took his vision to the street, sharing it with politicians and bureaucrats, art world luminaries, local boosters … anyone who would listen. He painted a picture of a “whimsical” and “temporary” work of art, an exhibition that would connect people with nature. And when asked by the curious about impacts to the environment, he denied that there would be any. “We leave our sites in better condition than we found them” became the project’s mantra. For those who’ve only heard the vision, it sounds great. But where the vision ends and reality begins, it’s a whole different story.

A self-styled entrepreneur and artist, Mr. Javacheff stayed focused on the vision and delegated the details to engineers, contractors and a series of project managers. Employing the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” school of engineering, it quickly became apparent that polypropylene fabric panels don’t hang themselves. On the contrary, the rough country and weather of the canyon would require an industrial-scale system of anchored cables to support them. While the exhibition of the work would take place over 2-4 weeks, construction, installation, and dismantling of the project was estimated to take 2-4 years. As more details became available through a public scoping process, Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), and then Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), the picture that formed seemed less and less like art and more and more like either an industrial assault on a fragile ecosystem or a tourism economy windfall, depending on who one asked. And while Mr. Javacheff himself never spoke to the potential economic benefits (“They are made for us first. Not the public.” He’s been quoted as saying of his artwork in National Geographic), recession weary business owners were quick to take up the cause. As the debate over the project raged on, one aspect of human nature became clear: if someone thinks something is good, they need think no further – if someone thinks something is bad, they will study that thing ad infinitum. For those who are still captivated by the vision, who haven’t actually studied the documents, here are some of the key points to consider:

1) As proposed, the project would require the drilling of over 9,000 holes in and adjacent to the riparian zone. The equipment this requires includes large track-hoe type machinery (230 CAT) that cannot be utilized in a riparian or desert environment without significant and enduring damage. The drills are LOUD – one can hear them well for a quarter mile up and downstream – and produce a large amount of dust that is impossible to effectively contain.

2) The holes will house anchor bolts. Most of these will remain in the rocks after the project is over. The anchor bolts will support 1,100 cables across the river at heights of 8-20 feet off the water.

3) The project as proposed, Alternative 1A, would see upstream installations in areas identified by the DOW as the most popular fishing sections on the Arkansas River – the County Line, the Point Bar/Rincon area, and the Red Rocks Canyon above Vallie Bridge. The downstream construction area is located in the Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern, an area that has been managed to a higher standard of environmental care, including provisions banning all surface drilling for minerals.

4) The FEIS projects negative impacts for the Canyon’s Bighorn Sheep population, raptors, rare plant species, and the fishery.

5) BLM and State Parks Recreation and Resource Management Plans and documents for these areas are straight-forward in their directives, consistently valuing natural resource protection above development and existing compatible uses against the introduction of incompatible new uses.

6) A recent Memorandum of Agreement between Colorado State Parks/Department of Natural Resources and Mr. Javacheff’s Over the River Corporation exchanges $550,000 in cost recovery and “recreation impact fees” for unfettered use of all state park sites in the Canyon and the right to develop and implement an event management plan. Circumventing long-held river carrying capacities and commercial boating allocations, the event management plan will include a private boater permitting system and new carrying capacities and commercial boat allocations for the section. Enforcement of these provisions will include private security contractors funded by the artist.

7) Pedestrian access will be severely curtailed or eliminated in areas of construction or installation and throughout the Highway 50 corridor during exhibition. Traffic will be significantly impacted throughout the three years of the project. River access, for both boaters and anglers, will be restricted during this time frame as well.

Recently, citizens’ group Rags Over the Arkansas River and fishing outfitters/retailers ArkAnglers and Arkansas River Fly Shop filed suit in District Court against the Colorado Department of Natural Resources/Division of Parks and Wildlife for the aforementioned Memorandum of Agreement. The complaint alleges that the State did not apply any of the prescribed standards or regulations required by statute in its analysis of the project and that the project as proposed violates the Royal Gorge Resource Area Resource Management Plan, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Recreation Management Plan, the Visual Resource Management Class II guidelines, and the intentions of the management directives for the Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern. In treating the project like a “special event,” such as the FibArk boating festival or a wedding at Five Points, and not requiring Mr. Javacheff to apply for a Special Use Agreement, Colorado State Parks has held him to a much lower standard of examination than they do boating or fishing outfitters, and has sidestepped this more rigorous process in favor of something resembling a lease.

As an entrepreneur and artist, Mr. Javacheff must weigh the risks and rewards against the strength of his vision. That is his right. But where he oversteps himself is in the belief that his gamble should be everyone’s gamble. Opponents of this project see a beautiful canyon, healthy wildlife populations and a fishery that has blossomed into Colorado’s most popular. They see a high desert riparian ecosystem, one of the most fragile in the world, tucked in tight against a major transportation artery with little room for anything else. They see canyon residents who will be impacted for years, anglers who will be kept from the water, environmental impacts that will outlive Javacheff and his corporation, and they ask, “Who are we to gamble the good that we already have against some unknown outcome, the risks inherent in which are many and documented?” In most situations, this is where the public looks to natural resource managers for advocacy and stewardship. In this case though, money, politics and one man’s vision may carry more weight than the many public values that will be trampled.


Greg Felt has worked for twenty-seven seasons as a guide and outfitter on the Arkansas River. He is co-owner of ArkAnglers in Salida and Buena Vista.
Ellen T. Bauder, PhD in plant ecology, serves as ROAR Inc.’s VP for Science.