Fittingly for a former toxic site now made environmentally friendly, the new Visitor Center at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge was designed and built to be “green,” with outdoor solar panels, renewable cork flooring and Colorado beetle-kill wood. The $7.6 million Visitor Center opened in May 2011.
After a massive $2+ billion cleanup and restoration, Colorado’s old Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been transformed into one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the nation. Wildlife — from birds to bison —now roams freely on this 15,000-acre site of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, only a few miles from Denver International Airport and downtown Denver.
The ceiling in the Visitor Center lobby, and also the front desk trim, are constructed with salvaged wood of Colorado lodge pole pine trees killed by pine beetles. The floors of the exhibit hall are made of thin sheets of bark peeled from living cork trees, which quickly regrow their bark. This exhibit area showcases the history of the arsenal site through interactive devices and photographic exhibits.
The history starts when the land was occupied by Plains Indians, who followed large herds of bison and lived off the land in this area. Later, as pioneers moved west to start a new life, they began growing crops and grazing cattle. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, the Army purchased the acreage in 1942 and developed it into a chemical weapons manufacturing facility to support the war effort. As production declined at war’s end, a portion of the facilities was leased to Shell Chemical Co. for the production of commercial and agricultural chemicals. The arsenal later was reactivated and used for Cold War weapons production. All production stopped in 1982, when the Army and Shell started the environmental cleanup.
Large outdoor solar panels at the Visitor Center provide energy and serve as protective covering in the parking area, which was paved with recycled asphalt. Spacious outdoor patios with interactive features allow visitors to learn about the height and wing spans of wildlife at the refuge.
Future landscaping of the vast acreage will include restoration of native grasses. Within the next 10 years, nearly 8,000 acres of former crop fields will be re-seeded with buffalo and blue grasses, plus other species of grasses, wild flowers and shrubs that are native to Colorado’s high plains.
Most of this land turned to farm land between 1880 and 1920. After the Army acquired the site during World War II, it converted abandoned crop fields to grasslands using mostly exotic grasses from Europe and Asia. Wildlife, such as prairie dogs, seems to thrive in unnatural habitats of weeds and exotic grasses, but many native Colorado songbirds cannot thrive without the diversity of the native prairie.
With the environmental cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, more than 300 structures in the former manufacturing areas were demolished and dumped in arsenal landfills or placed in contamination areas along with contaminated soil. These areas were then covered with thick layers of concrete and backfilled with clean soil. Native plants and grasses were planted to return the land to its original prairie vegetation. More than 10,000 tons of steel were recycled from areas without contamination. Ground water treatment plants were constructed to treat water on and off the site.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with the army and Shell to transform and maintain the site as a premier urban national wildlife refuge. The sanctuary now is home to more than 330 species of animals, including wild bison, deer, coyotes, bald eagles and burrowing owls.
If You Go
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Refuge is open to the public The Refuge is open daily from 6:00 am – 6:00 pm (the Refuge is closed on all Federal holidays). The Visitor Center is open Tuesdays – Sundays from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm (closed on Federal holidays). For additional information please call the Visitor Center at 303-289-0930 and offers environmental education and interpretive programs, catch-and-release recreational fee fishing, nearly nine miles of trails, wildlife viewing opportunities and site bus tours.
Visitor Center at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Refuge
6550 Gateway Rd.
Commerce City, Colorado, 80022.
Margaret Malsam is a freelance writer who lives in Westminster, Colorado.