Thursday, February 2, 2012

The High-Speed Rail Cover-Up

You would think that an article in the New York Times about the artist Christo would have nothing to do with high-speed rail. You would be wrong.  I'll explain. 

Christo, as we all know, is famous for finding very huge things on this planet, natural or man-made, and then draping them with cloth. Sometimes, miles and miles of cloth.

These comments will not be a discussion about aesthetics or the merits of Christo's work.  [Disclosure: My first career was as Professor of History and Fine Arts at Carnegie-Mellon.] 

This is a discussion about how Christo wants to drape six miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado.  If you have ever travelled in Colorado you will know that it is among the most beautiful wilderness states in the US.  

As it happens, "federal land managers" gave their approval for this project, which has a price tag of $50 million. Well, locals are objecting and they filed a federal lawsuit to block construction. The suit contends that federal laws are being violated, including land use and environmental ones.

These "NIMBYs" and environmentalists have formed an organization and accuse "moneyed interests and state politicians" of promoting a project that benefits certain special interests and "outsiders."

“We should be looking into this greed,” said Yvonne I. Nelson, a resident of the canyon who described herself as “82 and feisty.”  [Disclosure: I'm 82 and cranky.]

I won't get into the details about what's wrong with this project -- you should read that for yourselves -- except to point out that it is an imposition shoved down the resentful throats of local residents.  The project is horrendously intrusive; an imposition.  

And the rationale and justification is about money and the revenue it will generate. Oddly enough, the promoters didn't mention the jobs that would be created to suspend those miles of fabric, but, that's an oversight I'm certain the promoters will shortly correct.

Justification for legal approval consists of jiggling the language of definitions and ignoring environmental impacts.

The point here is that this project is an affront that will create far more harm than good.  How long it will remain in place once built has not been indicated, and to be fair, comparing this to a permanent, forever, hundreds of billions of dollars high-speed rail system minimizes the overwhelming adverse impact to be created by the train.  

It is the process to which I object more than the temporary cable-suspended miles of fabric.  It is government intrusion and imposition.  It is government insensitivity and callous indifference to local concerns.  It implies the same means and ends argument; that the ends justify the means.  It suggests that, "for the greater good, we all have to make sacrifices."

And please don't tell me about how highways being built or airports being expanded is the same thing.  We are talking about this high-speed rail project, here and now.

And this is why, just like Christo's drapery, building high-speed rail in California is wrong, wrong, wrong.

February 1, 2012

Note to Christo: Don’t Start Hanging the Fabric Yet

CAÑON CITY, Colo. — The shouting isn’t over for “Over the River.”

The $50 million project by the artist Christo, who hopes to drape nearly six miles of the Arkansas River here in southern Colorado with suspended bank-to-bank fabric, received approval from federal land managers late last year.

But on Wednesday, a new battlefield emerged in law and local politics: in Denver, opponents filed a federal lawsuit aiming to block construction, which Christo had hoped to begin this summer. The suit argues that land managers violated federal law in approving the plan and gauging its environmental impacts.

And two days of hearings before the Fremont County Commission began here in Cañon City — near the eastern end of the proposed 42-mile stretch of the river-as-art — to consider local event permits.

Christo’s supporters — a strange bedfellow’s mix of art lovers, politicians and tourism interests — rallied near the county administration building before the session began, handing out sky-blue T-shirts.

Anti-Christo forces, led by a group that has dubbed the project, and the name of their organization, “Rags Over the Arkansas River,” or ROAR, said that moneyed interests and state politicians were pushing a project that would mostly benefit outsiders.

“We should be looking into this greed,” said Yvonne I. Nelson, a resident of the canyon who described herself as “82 and feisty.”

Local business leaders and politicians, meanwhile, pointedly reminded the three members of the commission, in case they had forgotten, that the economy is still bad in this part of Colorado. “Over the River,” they said, which is financed entirely by Christo through the sale of his art, is a gift that would put places like Cañon City on the map, maybe even as a destination on the international art scene, in ways that could have huge long-term benefits.

Loving or hating Christo’s design, several suggested, is beside the point.

“Some people may see it as ragweed, some people may see it as a beautiful rose, but I think the benefit for the community is there,” said Colby Katchmar, a member of the Cañon City Council.

The project, which is projected to draw upward of 400,000 visitors — during the two-year construction period and the two-week final exhibition, tentatively scheduled for August 2014 — has divided people over multiple fracture lines.

Some speakers at the hearing said they resented the pressure to say yes, which they said is bearing down on their small rural communities from local chambers of commerce and politicians, led by Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a vocal enthusiast.

Others said the project, in seeking to create art in the midst of an already stunning natural setting in a rugged river valley, would diminish nature by presuming to improve upon it — a prospect that would offend true lovers of Colorado’s wild beauty and keep them away.

“Coloradans are not New Yorkers — they come to the mountains for scenery, wildlife, recreation and peace and quiet,” Ellen Bauder, the vice president for science at ROAR, said in remarks to the commission. 

“Bumper-to-bumper traffic, stoplights in the middle of nowhere and long lines are not their idea of recreation, and no amount of public relations is going to make it so,” she added.

The lawsuit, filed on ROAR’s behalf by a group of students at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, argues that land managers did not adequately address the long-term effects of the project on wildlife, especially the bighorn sheep that clamber about on the canyon’s cliffs.

And in classifying an art project as a “recreation activity,” the suit says, the federal analysts framed their assessment in ways that excused the impact of the thousands of bore-holes, rock-bolts and anchors that will have a cumulative effect, the suit says, not unlike industrial mining.

“In truth, the art project is akin to a massive resource extraction project, and under federal law should be treated as one,” the complaint reads.

A spokesman for the Over the River organization, Steve Coffin, said he was confident that the federal environmental impact statement, which took years to complete, would not be undone by the suit. “The E.I.S. was thorough and complete,” he said.


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