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Mega-artists look next 'over the river'

New York City artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude hope to cast their spell over a river before they retire. The famous husband-and-wife team are still reeling from this February's New York City mega-event, a two-week installation of 7,500 orange-curtained gates in Central Park. The Gates project was completed after 25 years of logjams, with the artists raising $21 million to fund the endeavor. The Gates drew an estimated 4 million visitors to the park.

After more than 40 years of supersized artworks, one last mega-art project remains on the couple's drawing board. In sharp contrast to the metropolitan staging, the proposed Arkansas River project targets a rural setting in south-central Colorado. The undertaking had been put on hold for four years in favor of the New York project. But the artists have now reactivated the river proposal through a recent public meeting in Salida, Colo.,and other sessions with local officials.

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They propose draping nearly seven miles of reflective translucent fabric at periodic intervals above a winding, 40-mile stretch of the river. Beginning 10 miles west of Cañon City, the narrow river route climbs toward Salida in the Sangre de Christo mountains.

But the idea for a Christo-scale event has some mountain residents worried about its impact on their quiet river paradise. Some hope to block what they view as "Christo's folly."

"Our beautiful skies do not need to be blocked or highlighted by a piece of cloth," says Salida resident, Julia Norton. "They are breathtaking enough. Not to mention the bighorn sheep, fish, and other wildlife and scenery through the Bighorn Canyon."

Many residents near Deer Mountain lost their homes in a catastrophic 2002 forest fire and are concerned about emergency access. The Arkansas River is also one of the most popular stretches for river rafting in the United States and is sometimes the scene of dramatic rescues.

"There is only one way in and one way out of this canyon," says Cathy Young. who lives near Deer Mountain. "Traffic count for 'Over the River' has been projected at 80,000 cars per day, which would immobilize emergency vehicles. We don't want to be the collateral damage for a two-week art project."

Despite such concerns, the project has been unanimously endorsed by the Fremont County Tourism Council. "It would be an economic boon to the entire area," says Vicky Casey, chairwoman of the council, "growing our economy by leaps and bounds, with a trickle-down effect from businesses to the entire community. It would put Cañon City and Fremont County on the world map, particularly if this were Christo's grand finale."

To address public concerns, the artists commissioned an environmental analysis from the Arkansas River Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida. Officials are examining possible impacts of the art project, including transportation issues, wildlife and river habitat, hydraulics, soils, fisheries, and even endangered plants.

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"There is always some panic and a steep public learning curve associated with the pros and cons of a Christo project," says Roy Masinton, a field office manager of the Bureau of Land Management in Cañon City. "We are trying not to judge it until making a thorough review of all possible impacts."

The study could be ready for public comment as early as this month. If the project clears public hearings, it must then survive a permitting process with 11 governmental agencies. The artists would then require a year to install the anchoring system. The earliest possible two-week exhibit would run in July-August of 2008.

"Over the River" was conceived in 1985. At the time, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were in Paris on a barge beneath the Pont Neuf, directing the wrapping of that historic bridge. A piece of fabric broke loose, fluttering over the Seine, the sun shining through it, catching the dancing reflection of the waters beneath it. Their eyes met in an "aha!" moment. Years later, that moment became the inspiration for translucent fabric panels floating over moving water.

A three-year search was launched in 1992 for the perfect site. After considering 89 river locations in seven Western states, the focus narrowed to a winding stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado's rural Fremont County. Bordered by two-lane US Highway 50, the river has no trees along its banks and offers continuous open views to passing motorists. Another alluring perspective would be seen by those who raft down the river. The artists also liked the variety of topography and favorable east-west light penetration into the canyon.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have spent more than $2 million on the project so far, including costs of environmental and traffic studies, design engineering, and wind-tunnel testing of the fabric panels.