The 17-year conversion of the Cold War-era Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant into a federal wildlife refuge next to one of the West's fastest-growing cities hits a milestone this weekend with the opening to the public of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
Urban planners and elected leaders around metro Denver mostly are embracing this new access to 5,237 acres of open space at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge - as long as the monitoring of plutonium in the soil continues. The refuge, still the subject of a lawsuit aimed at keeping the public out, builds on an emerging public-access landscape between Boulder and Golden that covers more than 80,000 acres.
Boulder and Jefferson County officials, who recently bought an adjacent 440-acre ranch, said they'll look at buying more land to preserve as open space along Colorado 93 - to make sure population growth and development don't completely devour nature.
"The way you grow an urban area is you have dense cities that are connected by transport but separated by open space," Boulder City Councilman Sam Weaver said. "Unfragmented ecosystems are hard to find along Colorado's Front Range. This refuge offers the opportunity for elk to migrate from their winter habitat to their summer habitat. It will allow species such as the black-footed ferret to survive with their natural prey: prairie dogs."
The opening of 11 miles of trails Saturday accelerates a transformation that Congress began in 2001 to use the 6,240-acre Rocky Flats site - where workers produced plutonium triggers for U.S. nuclear weapons wielded to deter the Soviet Union - as a refuge for wildlife and people. It required a $7.7 billion federal Superfund cleanup, which was completed in 2006, leaving a 1,300-acre fenced core where the Department of Energy oversees buried waste.
Federal biologists say the land is now home to more than 150 elk, occasional bear, mountain lions and moose, along with badgers, owls, bats and more than 630 species of plants.
Second wildlife refuge
This is metro Denver's second wildlife refuge established on military-industrial wasteland. After the federal cleanup of an Army chemical weapons plant and Shell pesticides facility northeast of Denver, government land managers opened the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in 2010. For years, visitors have flocked there to see a robust herd of bison.
But the opening at Rocky Flats has lagged amid conflict over roadways, encroaching residential development and mistrust of federal and state agencies around cleanup.
Activists still aim to block recreation at Rocky Flats through a lawsuit pending in federal court. A judge recently denied their request for an injunction to temporarily block the opening until the case is resolved. The activists are planning a protest at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offices in Denver this weekend.
On Tuesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crews were installing fences and shoring up an entrance and parking area off 128th Avenue on the north side of the refuge.
Race to protect natural areas
Federal refuge manager Dave Lucas helped build a bridge over a gully using two beams salvaged from a World War II-era arsenal warehouse. Lucas and crew power-drilled cedar slats across the beams in anticipation of growing numbers of hikers and bicyclists.
Protecting big open space, healthy enough to sustain wildlife near the expanding cities where most Americans live, has emerged as the primary challenge for conservationists, Lucas said.
"There are so many interests. We can't just put a stake in the ground. You have to work with local governments, stormwater districts, developers…," he said.
"This is native prairie out here. Once it is gone, it is gone. The race is on to protect the areas we can protect now, before they are gone. We have a large landscape now - around Rocky Flats - and everyone is starting to push in the same direction."
Heavy machinery churns up more land each day around the Rocky Flats refuge, clearing topsoil and leveling terrain to suit the needs of commercial and residential developers. Urban planners say they are trying to ensure adequate opportunities for newcomers drawn to Colorado for "quality of life" to connect with nature.
"We have everything from manicured parks to open areas. But we don't have anything that is quite so wild," Jefferson County planner Andrew Valdez said. "We are looking forward to integrating this refuge into what we can offer."
The refuge adds significant new room to roam that's open to the public in an area of more-or-less interconnected parcels owned by Boulder and Jefferson counties as open space. A heavily promoted recreation industry increasingly drives more and more residents into recreational activities outdoors, to the point that increased visitation degrades existing parks and trails.
"Our open space system is under immense pressure from the population growth," swamped with dog waste, invasive noxious weeds and erosion from too much traffic, Valdez said. "We hear from the public two things more than anything else: ‘Buy more land to keep open' and ‘Build more trails.'"
"The refuge is finally ready"
Last Sunday, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler visited Rocky Flats. He wasn't available to discuss the transformation of this site.
On Tuesday, the EPA's regional administrator, Doug Benevento, who worked on the Rocky Flats cleanup for a decade, including oversight as the state health director, repeated assurances that the refuge is safe for public use.
"After years of rigorous cleanup efforts, and multiple health studies, the refuge is finally ready for recreational use. I will be visiting with my family to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife," Benevento said.
"There are few places that better exemplify the power of the Superfund program to transform and revitalize," he said.
Metro Denver school districts still are restricting visits due to safety concerns.
Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo said plutonium testing along trails as a precaution and to build public confidence "does need to continue." Szabo sits on a Rocky Flats Stewardship Council that oversees soil testing. She said she also spoke directly with Wheeler during his visit.
"He isn't the one doing the testing. They just kind of review the testing. The Department of Energy is the one that is in charge of the testing," Szabo said.
And she welcomed the benefit for metro Denver of public access to the natural environment amid rapid urbanization. "People like to get away. Sometimes being in the metropolis is stressful. When you can walk, look at views, kind of relax, and it isn't 40 miles from your house, it creates a healthier atmosphere for our communities," she said.
"And as the refuge gets opened, just like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, more and more things will get introduced there. You can already see the eagles in nests by Standley Lake. They fly over. It is just a different experience, compared with your run-of-the mill playground park."