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Art Project Risk to Bighorn Sheep Challenged

DENVER (CN) - The 10th Circuit met Wednesday to consider how blanketing miles of the Arkansas River for a massive art installation might damage the environment.

Over the River, a project envisioned by the artist Christo, aims to suspend 5.9 miles of silver fabric above sections of the Arkansas River between Salida and Canon City.

The government's attorney, Vivian Wong, told a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit on Wednesday that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had considered all factors necessary in making its decision, and that any harm to the land would be "short-term, low-level."

Emphasizing that the art piece "mimics the flow of the river below," Wong said Over the River "draws visitors, it enhances the visitor appreciation."

Judge Scott Matheson posed a hypothetical situation in which the National Football League or Taylor Swift asked to perform a concert or play a game on such land.

Like the art piece, they too would bring in visitors, but they could damage the land as well.

Wong said "the difference is that what this project does - it relates to the Arkansas River and its suffrage."

"Has the agency ever confronted [issues] like this ... of this magnitude?" Judge Matheson asked.

"This is a pretty new circumstance," Wong said. "But the ... decision here is based on the record."

If approved, the installation would take two years to implement, and would be on display for two weeks.

Known usually by his first name, the Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheff collaborated with his now late wife Jean-Claude back in 2005 on the art installation called The Gates, in New York City's Central Park.

After the Bureau of Land Management approved Over the River in 2011, a group of Denver University law students calling themselves ROAR, short for Rags Over the Arkansas River, filed suit for an injunction.

A federal judge dismissed the challenge, however, leading ROAR to push the 10th Circuit for a reversal Wednesday.

Michael Harris, of the university's environmental law clinic, told the three-judge appellate panel that Christo's "massive, industrial-sized project" would drill "thousands of holes" into land that the government has designated as ACEC, or an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, because it serves as a key habitat for bighorn sheep.

Approving the project directly contradicted a major management policy that governs the ACEC, the attorney warned.

"Management Directive I-66 ... limits what's allowed in those areas," Harris said. "The Bureau of Land Management couldn't find consistency with the most important management directive."

Judges Jerome Holmes and Bobby Baldock joined Matheson on the panel.

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