Where chemical weapons once grew, animals now rule east of Denver | The gallery

COMMERCE CITY • Nick Lendrum lacks calm. The opening. The unobstructed view of the mountain. It was life as he knew it in western Colorado.

He found something very different in Denver, where he recently moved for a job.

“All this traffic and all these people,” he remarked one afternoon last month. “It gives me anxiety.”

But driving through these ever-expanding suburbs, through the townhouses and business names and the place that is Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and the banging and banging of construction going on, Lendrum found something startling. .

Everything seemed to disappear at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

The road leaves the neighborhood seamlessly and spills out into this ocean of rolling grassland. It’s all land and sky to the east, an oasis between downtown and Denver International Airport. Its 15,000 acres are home to more than 300 species, including the iconic bison and bald eagles, which roost in cottonwood trees above a chain of lakes.

The butterflies flit beside a flowery habitat set up for them, near the spot set up for the endangered black-footed ferret, which preys on the resident prairie dogs. Along the trails or an 11-mile loop road, people watch for various mammals or the seasonal range above: great horned owls, great blue herons, Swainson’s hawks, lark sparrows and the occasional sandhill crane.

The contrast is striking: Denver’s skyline rises less than 15 miles away.

“We have members of the Denver community who have lived here their entire lives are visiting (and saying) ‘I didn’t know this was here,'” said Sarah Metzer, visitor services manager for the reserve.

She heard about it more during the pandemic, a time marked by swelling outdoor crowds. About a decade ago, near the time Rocky Mountain Arsenal reached its current size, visitation hovered around 30,000, Metzer said. Last year, she said, nearly 750,000 people came through the doors.

“During the pandemic, we certainly saw that it was not just a wildlife refuge, but also a human refuge,” Metzer said.

Which was recognized by a new federal designation last year. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is now a “flagship urban shelter,” a title that comes with a $1 million funding boost to expand programs dedicated to education and improving access for diverse populations bordering the earth.

Arsenal added four starters last year – an attempt to improve that access, Metzer said. The trail network has grown from 8 miles to about 20, she said, with connections to long-neglected neighborhoods. A social scientist was hired to lead a local listening tour, asking the question, “What value does this place have to you?” as Metzer puts it.

None, some would say. Where new neighbors see beauty in their backyards, others who have been there longer might still see decades of blight and taxation.

The Arsenal’s name is rooted in the military operation that took over this former farmland after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Families left with a mixture of pain and patriotism. A line of thought: the army was coming to make necessary use of their ranches.

Construction has started in earnest. Chemical weapons were developed and amassed to fight the Axis powers, including some of the 1,500 tons of napalm that was dropped on Tokyo in an attack that turned the war around.

At the end of the Second World War, the Arsenal was leased to a company specializing in pesticides and herbicides – the company would later become Shell Oil – only for the army to revive the construction of weapons in a few years. During the Cold War, the Arsenal became the world’s main source of the nerve agent Sarin.

The 1960s saw attention turn to rocket fuel. The Arsenal produced propellant for launches such as Apollo 11. Also during this decade, the military thought it wise to dig a shaft 12,000 feet deep and pump millions of gallons of waste into it. . A series of earthquakes shook Denver around this time. Some experts have pointed to this underground strategy.

This was just the start of the exam. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 and regulators quickly listed the Arsenal site as a Superfund. What followed was one of the largest demilitarization missions ever carried out by the military – a mission deemed too slow for onlookers fearing groundwater contamination.

The cleaning accelerated after 1986. It was then that a worker spotted a member of an endangered species of great concern at the time: the bald eagle, symbol of the country.

This prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to partner with the military and Shell Oil to restore the landscape. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Refuge Act was passed in 1992, paving the way for future conservation. Over 300 structures were demolished in 1998, paving the way for the planting of more native grasses.

The nesting eaglets were celebrated in 2001. In 2007, as part of a nationwide recovery effort, a small herd of bison arrived. The cleanup was deemed complete in 2010.

Still, “a lot of neighbors have a rough idea of ​​what this place is,” Metzer said.

In recent years, it’s been about “turning the page,” she said. “And we really hope that by doing more community outreach, we can reach community members who may not understand that this is a safe and welcome place for them to hang out, recreate and enjoy.”

Enjoy as Lendrum did on a recent afternoon. Looking at the bison and the open space, he felt more at home away from the city.

“It relaxes me,” he said.

Contact the author: seth.boster@gazette.com

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