COMMERCE CITY–Surrouded by a city undergoing a population boom, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is a place for both wildlife and people. It may also be the birthplace for the next generation of conservationists.
The refuge plays a key role in the conservation of wildlife including migratory birds and endangered black-footed ferrets. It’s also a place for people to escape city life. Studies have found that living near parks and open space boosts mental health.
“You’re in metro Denver, but there’s a lot of land here,” refuge manager David Lucas, said.
But the refuge wasn’t always this healthy.
The U.S. Army produced chemical weapons, like mustard gas, during the 1940’s. The Geneva Convention ended the demand for chemical weapons facilities, and the arsenal was leased to Shell Chemical. Shell produced DDT and other chemicals that polluted groundwater and contaminated soil, Lucas said.
In the 1980s, restoration efforts began to remedy some of the damage to the land. The cleanup cost $2.1 billion. Workers buried toxic materials and capped them with asphalt to prevent further contamination. A water purification plant pumps and cleans groundwater. The cleanup allowed native seeds and plants to be introduced back into the area.
Bald eagles nesting in the cottonwoods sparked interest in the land from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1992, Congress designated the land as a national wildlife refuge, but it wasn’t until 2010 that restoration of the 15,000-acre refuge was finished.
“This is a place you come to enjoy nature,” Lucas said.
As he spoke, the refuge’s herd of about 180 bison grazed through an open field. The outline of Denver’s skyscrapers clearly framed the herd. Steam from a natural gas power plant in Commerce City billowed over the prairie.
Bison aren’t the only species on the refuge. Nearly a third of the world’s endangered black-footed ferret live at the Rocky Mountian Arsenal, Lucas said.
Lucas also sees the value of the land beyond a place for wildlife.
“We are here to try and connect the future generation of Americans to conservation,” Lucas said. Kids who come from surrounding neighborhoods to enjoy the refuge will likely be the people who take over his job, he said.
Officials have been working to increase access, particularly in poor neighborhoods, to the refuge through community outreach and better infrastructure. Lucas said their efforts are working, and a more diverse group of users is enjoying the refuge.
“When I started here it was all wealthy birders. All white,” he said.
His vision of the refuge is a place that will motivate the next generation. He wants to see kids who grow up near the refuge engaged in conservation. For Lucas, this is the first step to creating engaged people who can carry on a legacy of conservation.
“If we don’t figure out how to connect with them, all this conservation goes away.”
“This is a place you come to enjoy nature”
“We’re making a connection with this current generation.”
“We have to get them excited about it…
“This will never be wilderness.”
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