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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A LONG-AWAITED RETURN
It had been 18 years since our last visit to Rocky Mountain Arsenal when we returned last July to work on this story. In 2004, in middle of our long absence, it had earned designation as a National Wildlife Refuge, giving protected status to the animals there. We wondered if we could regain the old excitement and sense of discovery that made the first project so rewarding.
Before driving out, we skimmed through our dog-eared notebook which began with the handwritten title page, “Rocky Mountain Arsenal Documentation Journal: November 10, 1988.” It sparked memories of the early days of walking through the forests, wading in hip boots to capture waterfowl in silhouette at sunrise, and sitting in a blind for a week to finally get all eight burrowing owl babies looking toward us at once for the perfect photo.
Some things hadn’t changed much in our 18 years away. There are still acres and acres of prairie dog colonies and even a few burrowing owls. We found a cluster of 15 mule deer bucks bedded tightly together to escape the sun in the shade of a lone cottonwood.
The arsenal had been laid out in an orderly checkerboard of roads spaced a mile apart, with its two huge production plants being guides for orientation. When we returned, we discovered some roads had been entirely removed and new ones built. All the production buildings were gone, leaving miles of prairie where old landmarks used to be. We took aerial shots of the places where the production plants had been. The scarred lands now looked healed by open prairie.
Bison once roamed the Great Plains, and because of that historic significance a small herd was reintroduced here in 2007. It was a plan to restore the native essence of this short grass prairie. The bison often can be seen from the visitor center or along the self-guided auto tour road that opened last fall.
ANGLERS AND EAGLES
What once was a highly restricted area can now be viewed by the public. Visitors are common at today’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the first volunteer groups to come here was Arsenal Anglers, spearheaded by fishermen like Peter Pauwels. Among its many projects, Arsenal Anglers runs a handicapped fishing program at the arsenal’s Lake Mary. On a Saturday afternoon when we visited, we met Pauwels and two quadriplegic fishermen on the dock.
Pauwels and other engineers developed fishing gear so quadriplegic anglers can cast and reel in fish despite their limitations. Between catches of four-pound bass and seven-pound catfish, Pauwels reminisced about the arsenal’s evolution.
“You know, when you consider the sinister nature of the nerve gas bombs, pesticides and all the other materials produced here, it’s amazing we ended up with a wildlife refuge,” Pauwels said. “Other countries went through some of the same processes, but they’ve ended up with just polluted ground as an inheritance. We have a wildlife refuge because we invested in cleaning it up and making something of value for people of the community.”
Less than a generation ago, the American bald eagle was endangered. Its very existence was threatened by the pesticide DDT. Only one active bald eagle nest existed in the entire state of Colorado in 1974. Today, 90 nests in Colorado are producing fledglings, including one at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.
When we returned to the arsenal in July, we saw an adult eagle and its two fledglings.
The fledglings stayed near the nest as they worked to perfect their flying and hunting skills.
They soon became oblivious to our quiet presence. We watched with binoculars and were excited when one flew close enough for photographs.
We will cherish these shots more than the thousands of others we’ve produced in our careers as photographers. Without bald eagles, Rocky Mountain Arsenal might have been cleaned, paved and developed into yet another industrial park.
Instead, we have a legacy for the future by conserving wildlife and habitat. Just as important, the arsenal provides a window onto the prairie for people to discover and learn about the natural world.
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)