DENVER -- Artist Christo's plan to suspend huge fabric panels over parts of the heavily rafted Arkansas River in Colorado is largely intact under a version federal land managers identified Thursday as the preferred alternative for the project.
If the Bureau of Land Management issues a permit for Christo's "Over the River," it could happen in August 2014. A final decision is expected this fall.
The preferred alternative identified in the BLM's final environmental impact statement largely matches the vision of the Bulgarian-born Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude. They wanted to suspend 5.9 miles of silvery panels in eight sections above a 42-mile stretch of the river that mostly involves federal land.
The BLM also reviewed alternatives for as little as 1.4 miles of fabric over four sections of the river traced by U.S. 50 between Canon City and Salida.
"We're very excited. This is a milestone in the history of art and national environmental policy," said Christo, who said this is the first environmental impact statement for a work of art.
Colorado wildlife commissioners voted in May to send a letter opposing the project and expressing concerns for its effects on bighorn sheep. Separately, state parks officials reached an agreement for Christo to fulfill his project, but two fly fishing businesses and a group called Rags Over the Arkansas River filed a lawsuit this week saying a state permit should be required instead. Parks officials haven't commented on the suit.
The project would close some lanes of U.S. 50 on an estimated 177 days over a 28-month period when Christo's team would install cables and anchors to hang the fabric panels, some of which are 100 feet wide. Critics say that will snarl traffic for residents, rafters and anglers.
The preferred alternative adds more measures to protect bighorn sheep, birds, recreation, transportation and other resources, and a viewing center along the highway at Parkdale was removed to improve traffic.
The $50 million project, which Christo would fund through sales of his sketches and other art, would draw an estimated 400,000 people. After a free two-week exhibition, Christo's team would dismantle it.
Christo, 76, and Jeanne-Claude first put "Over the River" on paper in 1992. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009.
"The project has its own life, over 19 years," Christo said. "The only one thing is Jeanne-Claude of course is not there. But when I talk, I always say `we.' Me and Jeanne-Claude are still together forever."