On a Monday morning in early May, thunderstorms already were sprouting above the foothills to the west of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and the recent rains had left the ground muddy.
A herd of elk eyed the two vehicles carrying a pair of journalists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, and a volunteer, across the 5,300-acre refuge that sits between Boulder and Golden, once home to the notorious Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
Aside from a stage coach stop, a barn and an old farmhouse, there was little to suggest anyone had ever set foot on the expansive refuge. Yet its Cold War past still haunts the landscape, even threatening — via a lawsuit brought by Boulder activists — to derail the refuge's public opening later this summer.
A great horned owl was expected to bolt from the old barn on the Lindsay Ranch as the vehicles approached, but the bird already had left, a large pile of droppings the only evidence that the owl calls the rustic building home.
Snipes sounded off in the odd clutches of shrubbery — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Manager David Lucas said he's never seen such odd formations of plants — blooming from the steep, rocky hillsides.
"They sound a lot like turkeys," Lucas said of the birds, adding that a lot of people still believe snipes don't really exist because of old snipe-hunting tales.
A magpie occasionally leaped from the shrubs and disappeared again, and a chorus of frogs droned from one of the many temporary wetlands that spring up during rainy periods. Aside from that, and the odd hawk lounging on a tree limb or a circling the grey skies in search of prey, wildlife was scarce that day.
The true stars of the morning, however, were the dozens of species of wildflowers to be identified — or not identified — by volunteer botanist Sharon Bokan, who once worked as an engineer at Rocky Flats, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Supervisory Ranger Cindy Souders.
Bokan has been accompanying the tours ahead of the wildlife refuge's planned opening this summer — no officials date has been announced — and she has loved what she has seen so far.
"The kind of plants you see here, you don't see anywhere else," she said.
At the top of a hillside on the northwestern edge of the refuge, Fish and Wildlife staff identified 40 species of grass and wildflowers in about 15 minutes. (They also found invasive plants and discussed ways to keep them out. Goats briefly were considered, but quickly ruled out.)
"Really, the diversity of plants out here are just amazing," Souders said as she pointed out a scorpion weed. "Its seed head looks like a scorpion tail."
"That's not even getting into the grasses," Bokan added.
Souders turned and pointed out a purple locoweed.
"In an earlier stage, wildlife can eat it," she said. "Later on, it's fatal."
A few minutes later, Souders and Bokan huddled over a new find, audibly excited.
"What is that one?" Lucas asked.
"We don't know," Souders replied.
Lucas laughed. "I love those."
"We'll figure it out," Souders shot back. "It just takes time."
Nuclear trigger plant
The refuge surrounds what was once the Rocky Flats nuclear plant, a complex of buildings where engineers pressed weapons-grade plutonium into the "triggers" that would set off the tens of thousands of bombs built during the Cold War.
The plant was plagued with problems, including fires that released radioactive plumes of smoke over the Denver metro area. After years of protests and activism — and an FBI raid — production at the plant ceased in 1992. It was later deemed a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency and cleaned up for longer than a decade at a cost of more than $7 billion.
Congress established the area as a national wildlife refuge in 2007. It surrounds the area where the factory — it is now called the more innocuous-sounding Central Control Unit — once stood. The U.S. Department of Energy manages the site, but the surrounding area falls under the Fish and Wildlife Service's purview.
Nothing remains in the Central Control Unit to suggest it was ever a nuclear weapons facility, at least nothing visible from outside the unimpressive three-strand barbed wire fence that surrounds the area.
A marker commemorates the end of the cleanup and the people who worked at the plant, and accompanies a posted list of use restrictions (no permanent structures) and a sign that tells people to stay out. An 877 phone number is proffered for anyone with questions.
"They actually answer it," Lucas said. "We called it and a woman picked up and said, 'Department of Energy.'"
'Still finding stuff out here'
Lucas wants people to know the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge has a story to tell beyond the fact it surrounds what was once a factory where men and women worked toward building weapons designed to vaporize cities.
"We just want to show people that the specter people have created is just one side of it," Lucas said. "There is more to the area than that."
The refuge, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, hosts 239 migratory and year-round species of animals, including the federally threatened Preble's meadow jumping mouse, along with about 630 species of plants.
Wildflowers bloom in the grasslands from spring to fall, and northern leopard frogs, painted turtles, muskrats double-crested cormorants can be seen in ponds on the refuge. Bullsnakes, yellow-bellied racer snakes and short-horned lizards reside in the open prairie grasslands. Porcupines call the woodlands home, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
This diversity of life, according to the agency, is possible because almost no one and nothing that would disturb the land has set foot in the area for nearly 70 years, including people and grazing livestock.
Beyond the fence separating Rocky Flats from the rest of the world lies the Denver skyline to the southeast, obscured by air pollution, and the massive windmills of the National Wind Technology Center to the north. The Candelas housing development borders the refuge to the south.
"We are still finding stuff out here," Lucas said. "It's pretty neat and kind of humbling."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serivce ecologist Steve Kettler said Rocky Flats is home to xeric tall grass and upland shrubbery that provides an interesting mix of plants and animals that doesn't exist in such a large area anywhere else.
"I don't suspect we are going to find a magical 10,000-acre patch over a hill," Kettler said. "I think what we have today is most of what is out there."
Kettler — who previously worked at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program — said that without Rocky Flats and a few other areas, people would lose the ability to see such a diverse community of plants and animals.
"It's part of our natural history that would be lost without Rocky Flats," he said.
Officials already have opened the site to tours and, and in the long run, plans exist to build a visitor center and connect the trails inside the refuge to ones in Boulder County's open space network and other areas.
Instagram photos shared with a Daily Camera reporter showing a duo of trespassers swimming in a pond earlier this year offer some proof that people already are showing up.
"We still have a little work to do," Lucas said. "But some think it's open already."
Radiation 'essentially forever'
Controversy has raged around the Rocky Flats plant and its effect on the environment in the more than two decades since the factory closed, and the Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement to open up trails has not been well-received by activists opposed to anyone setting foot on that land.
A number of metro-area school districts, including Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley, already have prohibited their students from going on field trips to the refuge over safety concerns.
A resolution by Denver Public Schools bans field trips, in part, because of "strong concerns by some scientists and other about the health safety of the Rocky Flats site," but doesn't mention the refuge by name.
In Jefferson County, where most of the refuge lies, the school district issued a memorandum that takes no formal position on the safety of the site, but out of "an abundance of caution" requires prior approval of the district superintendent before any field trips can be scheduled.
That county's top health official said in May that opening the refuge to the public would be "unwise," and that a "truly independent" assessment of potentially lethal plutonium contamination should take place first. That drew a rebuke from Lucas, the refuge project manager, who called the comments "reckless and irresponsible."
Numerous groups, including the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, have filed a new lawsuit demanding the government study the potential health hazards in greater depth before opening the refuge to the public. A federal judge in September dismissed a prior suit filed by a coalition of groups seeking to keep the refuge closed.
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to keep the refuge closed until their most recent suit is settled. Attorneys for the federal government have until Monday to respond to the motion, according to online court records.
The controversy has inspired books and art, as well.
Jeff Gipe's "Cold War Horse," a life-sized statue of an equine clad in a gas mask and red chemical suit, stands guard at the edge of the refuge. A recent show at the Boulder Public Library held in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center featured photographs of the factory and other pieces inspired by the notorious facility.
Kristen Iversen, who grew up in Arvada and worked at the plant, wrote a memoir called "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats" that documents illness and health problems that she said she and others have suffered because of exposure at Rocky Flats.
Iversen opposes the refuge opening to the public because she said strong evidence exists that the site still poses a health risk to people and animals. She would support the concept of branding the area a "National Sacrifice Zone" and closing it permanently.
"Call it what it is," she said. "And keep people off it."
The Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have deemed Rocky Flats to be safe for people to come visit, and the Fish and Wildlife Service defers to those agencies' findings.
Activists aren't convinced. Daniel Ellsberg — best known as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, but also heavily involved in the push to close Rocky Flats — recently called the move to open up the refuge for recreation "absurd."
"They both say it's safe," Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center founder LeRoy Moore said, referring to the EPA and Colorado health department.
"That's the language that they use," Moore said. "I think that is questionable. Everyone knows there is some plutonium in the environment there. Even the Fish and Wildlife Service has admitted that."
Moore said the cleanup of the plant didn't extend to the refuge, and even if further remediation were to happen, he's dubious the area should ever be declared "safe," because plutonium — which is produced in nuclear reactors — has a radioactive half-life of more than 24,000 years, and is dangerous even in minute quantities.
"It's going to be irradiating people in the area, unless it's removed, essentially forever," Moore said. "That is a situation that exists at the refuge. It's the reason we oppose it so strongly. I used to tell students when I was teaching that the best way to protect yourself from plutonium is don't breathe."
'Tremendous debt of gratitude'
Kim Griffiths lives in the Candelas development that borders the refuge and sits on the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council that holds quarterly meetings. She said she had to sign paperwork when she bought her home acknowledging that she was aware it sits next to a Superfund site.
Griffiths said she conducted her own research using information available from the state and federal governments, and she felt the area was safe for her to purchase a home. She added that the agencies responsible for monitoring safety at the site have taken millions of air, water and soil samples, and while she concedes that the level of plutonium will never be zero, she feels confident that her home is safe.
"If you are going to move next door to a Superfund site, you'd better do your homework," she said. "On the face of it, it doesn't sound logical. Would I move next door to Love Canal? No. What I did is I looked extensively at the research available at the Department of Energy, Rocky Flats Stewardship Council and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment."
She said that the activists still trying to keep the area closed are no longer basing their arguments on facts, and it's easy to convince people that the area is unsafe simply by "name-dropping plutonium."
She added, however, that she appreciates the work that activists did to bring about the closure of Rocky Flats.
"We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their persistence and activism in getting the Rocky Flats plant shut down," she said. "They persisted against odds that were astronomical to push back and get it closed. My hats off to them."
Suzanne Webel, president of the Boulder Area Trails Coalition, said in an email that her organization has been involved with the trail planning process at the Rocky Flats refuge since it began, and the science indicates the area is safe.
Webel said the coalition has evaluated the data regarding contamination and is convinced that the site is safe for recreational trail users, in part, because they are far away from the Central Control Unit.
She added that the trails might become a segment of the Front Range Trail, a system of extant and planned trails that extend from the Wyoming border south to New Mexico.
"If people are concerned about their safety they don't have to go there, but they should stop obstructing progress for the rest of us," she said "We look forward to the opening of this excellent new trail system at Rocky Flats."