Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Denver's Wildlife Oasis

Bald eagles and bison within view of the Denver skyline? From wasteland to wonderland, Rocky Mountain Arsenal's once-toxic military dumping grounds is now home to its own veritable army of native species.



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(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)


TWO ADULT BALD eagles roost together in a cottonwood tree at the bottom of a grassy hill, and a red-tailed hawk perches a few branches below the pair.

Half a dozen mule deer graze peacefully, and a gentle breeze brings melodic songs of meadowlarks and lark buntings, Colorado’s state bird. We feel like we’re in a scenic national park, but we remember where we are when a 747 departing nearby Denver International Airport passes overhead.

The natural world thrives at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. It’s remarkable that this peaceable kingdom is a 20-minute drive from downtown Denver and the metro area’s 2.5 million residents. But even more remarkable is that this place once was considered a toxic wasteland.

The U.S. Army established Rocky Mountain Arsenal in 1942 to manufacture nerve gas and other chemical weapons for World War II, and the plant was reactivated during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Added to the toxic mix were herbicides and pesticides produced by private companies. For 40 years, a witch’s brew of contaminants was pumped into a common disposal area surrounded by an expanse of prairie, lakes and forests. All production ended in 1982, and five years later the arsenal was declared a Superfund cleanup site. The Army Corps of Engineers called the disposal area “the most contaminated square mile on Earth.”

 

 

But the Army only used 10 percent of the arsenal’s 27 square miles for production, leaving the rest of the land undeveloped to serve as a buffer of protection and secrecy. Away from the patches of contaminants was a thriving menagerie of wildlife, and what made it a particularly special place were the bald eagles, then endangered, that used cottonwood trees as a winter roost.

“What drew our concern was an endangered species in a highly contaminated area, and we had to do something to protect them,” said Mike Lockhart, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist sent to the arsenal in 1986 to look into the eagles.

Initial proposals called for drastic measures – remove the trees, remove the eagles’ prey, clean the area and pave it over.Former Gov. Roy Romer and others wanted to do just the opposite and restore the land to its natural state. That seemed a tall order in light of the contamination, but as Lockhart and others inspected the site, it became clear animals were thriving despite the deadly chemicals.

Pretty quickly, Fish and Wildlife went from seeing Rocky Mountain Arsenal as just a hazardous place to concrete over, to seeing what might be done to protect it.That’s when we entered the picture. On a sunny day in the fall of 1988, Lockhart and fellow Fish and Wildlife biologist Pete Gober sat down with us at a picnic table in Barr Lake State Park to discuss their proposal: They wanted us to photograph the arsenal as a way to introduce the public to the wildlife and open spaces there.

Lockhart and Gober told us about the eagles and vast amounts of other wildlife on the arsenal, and they asked if we could produce a dozen outstanding wildlife photographs if we had access to the arsenal for six weeks. Intrigued and skeptical of finding vast populations of any kind of animals, we said we’d have to see the place before making a decision.

 

AT FIRST SIGHT

We met Lockhart a couple of days later for a tour of the arsenal. After some formalities at the security gate, we finally got a look beyond the barbed wire fences. The Army’s need for secrecy meant the property was for decades patrolled by armed military personnel, and the public was strictly forbidden. Signs still remained near the production plant that read, “No Access: Use of Lethal Force is Authorized.” This certainly caught our attention.

Once inside, it only took 50 yards along the tree-lined road before we saw the first of many red-tailed and ferruginous hawks perched on branches. We also glimpsed scatterings of smaller birds. When Lockhart told us how many he had tallied on his bird counts, we joked he must be bragging – the numbers seemed impossibly high. He assured us the counts were accurate, and as we continued driving, it became easier to believe.

 

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