As my son and I drove from Denver International Airport to our first stop at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (NFWS), I really thought we'd gotten lost and had wandered into some suburb of the city. We had. The decommissioned WWII chemical weapons facility is surrounded on three sides by dense commercial development and housing, the most glaring neighbor being a flashy concert/sports venue named for a popular sports equipment manufacturer. We asked our Google Maps app again where to find entrance, which it shares with the sports venue, and soon enough found the stunning plains-style visitor center. By that time we had crossed some very contested ground.
|Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center|
|Built in 2010.|
These are the kinds of landscapes that have, of late, captured my attention and have directed some targeted research into domestic wartime land use issues. I've looked closely at a few military lands close to home - Edgewood Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, chemical weapons development and testing grounds begun as far back as WWI. Like many military, chemical, or radiated landscapes that humans can no longer safely use (due to contamination and health risks) decommissioned lands often become wildlife havens. In Colorado the practice of converting contaminated lands into wildlife refuges is not without its critics. Developers want some of this prime real estate as Denver's suburbs intensify and spread - it's valuable land. Environmentalists caution that aspects of the landscape here are still dangerous - that human and environmental health risks outweigh development potential. The USFWS maintains that buffer lands and former military property should be monitored and that native populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects should be encouraged and protected. In effect, all three stakeholders have won a bit of the argument.
|Bison graze on contested lands that some want to see developed.|
Like the chemical weapons facility near where I live, military manufacturing and testing of conventional weapons also occurred. The base near home and office is still active and not a few times have our walls shuddered (one is cracked) and windows rattled as bombs, mortars, missiles, and shells are tested a few miles from my desk. Here at RMA like at Edgewood Arsenal, the military produced mustard gas, napalm, white phosphorous, lewisite, and chlorine gas from WWII until 1970. After that the base served as a reduction facility to destroy stockpiles of munitions and chemicals. Pesticide companies leased the land following military use. Deep injection wells received waste water. These caused earthquakes - a familiar outcome as folks in Oklahoma can confirm. By the 1980s the site had been declared a high-priority Superfund site.
|Black-tailed Prairie Dog, RMA NWR|
By 2010 the clean-up was considered complete and lands were transferred to the U.S.F.W.S. Since decommissioning in the late 1960s, the "empty" landscape had become repopulated with animals and plants. Here were rare but expanding populations of bald eagles, vast black-tailed prairie dog towns (and all those animals associated with dog town burrows), and blacktail jackrabbits, wild cousins of the domestic rabbits used in sarin gas detection experiments. In 2011 the visitor center opened to the public. Bison were brought in from Montana.
The Visitor Center was beautiful with large windows looking out across a panoramic landscape. We followed room to room to look at the kids activity area, a bookstore, information lobby, and art gallery. I wondered if the USFWS would mention the weapons history of the site when my son called me over to the display room. It was nothing short of eerie but I was glad to see that the RMA story was an important part of site interpretive history.
|Working attire at Ricky Mountain Arsenal.|
As military-industrial land use concerns mount here and abroad, I am interested in how we frame our ideas of restoration and reclamation, and if "letting nature take its course" is an appropriate response to heavily degraded and contaminated ground. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is not the only landscape under close scrutiny as just miles away is the famed Rocky Flats nuclear materials development and dump site. In the case of radioactive contamination, as Chernobyl has demonstrated, the monitoring and management phase of reclamation and restoration is equal to the infinity room at Rocky Flats. But rather than abandon the city of Pripyat, our local communities such as Aberdeen, Edgewood, Denver and its suburbs are developing fast. Granted, we can't compare the scale of the Chernobyl disaster or the Fukushima plant failure during the 2010 tsunami with the relatively passive landscapes of decommissioned military landscapes like Rocky Flats and Rocky Mountain Arsenal. But for the sake of environmental history where long term degradation over decades can result in environmental effects over centuries if not eons, there questions yet to be considered as we learn our way forward in conservation treatments of sacrificed land.
Len Ackland's 1999 book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West is a good introduction to the social and political response to the secretive and threatening activities of the neighboring nuclear weapons plant near Denver. It describes the myopic dysfunction of long-term considerations for effects of domestic development and use of weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War.
The NWR is only a short drive from Denver International Airport, but check your GPS for entry roads. We stumbled into an active building site the first try.
Rocky Flats NWR is not yet open to the public as concerns about radioactive soil contamination continue. According to plans the refuge will have a "soft and limited opening" at the end of 2017 https://www.fws.gov/refuge/rocky_flats/