When the dust finally settled on December 31, a complicated $10 million land swap involving the Colorado State Land Board, Boulder and Boulder County, Jefferson County and the Department of the Interior -- which now owns Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant -- had gone through. And that paves the way for another link in the controversial Jefferson County Parkway.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees Rocky Flats for the DOI, had first signed off on the proposal in December 2011. It essentially calls for a 600-plus acre parcel on the southwest corner of the former nuclear weapons plant, officially known as section 16, becoming part of the refuge, adding to protected open space in the western suburbs. (Boulder and Boulder County are helping to fund that part of the deal, to protect their southern border.)
But in exchange, a 300-foot-wide right-of-way on the eastern edge of Rocky Flats will go to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority. And that's what concerns the towns of Golden and Superior, which had sued to stop the deal, as well as two environmental groups that also filed suit, citing concerns of potential environmental impacts from constructing a road over contaminated ground.
On December 21, a federal judge ruled against that suit; after WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild appealed, a U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel temporarily blocked the swap. But on December 26, a federal appeals court lifted that injunction -- allowing the swap to be completed just under the wire by the end of 2012.
"It was pretty bizarre how this all played out, what with the court flip-flopping like this," says Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, which had filed suit to stop the deal, "but this whole issue has had a tinge of bizarreness from the start...Still, despite last week's setback (which does, sadly, now mean that ownership of the eastern portion of Rocky Flats will for certain be transferred to JPPHA), our appeal is still in motion and there's still some hope that level-headed politics might still prevail."
Even so, it could be more than a year before there's a ruling on that appeal. And in the meantime, the Jefferson Parkway board will be meeting to decide how to proceed with the toll road -- and Interior is touting the deal as a major triumph for open space.
Here's the announcement that the Interior Department released late Monday, December 31:
AMERICA's GREAT OUTDOORS:
Secretary Salazar, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Announce Expanded Conservation at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Represents Key Step in Establishing Rocky Mountain Greenway as America's Next Great Urban Park
GOLDEN, Colo. - Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Colorado and local municipalities today closed on a land exchange that will allow approximately 1,200 acres of important wildlife habitat to be added to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, increasing the refuge's size by nearly one-third and connecting it with the region's open space and trail system. Rocky Flats is one of three National Wildlife Refuges in the Denver metropolitan area that provide open space, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Today's closing is an important step in establishing the Rocky Mountain Greenway, an uninterrupted trail and open space network will connect hundreds of miles of trails in the Denver metropolitan area. The Rocky Mountain Greenway, part of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors program, will link the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Rocky Flats and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuges, Rocky Mountain National Park, and community trail systems.
"Today's action will significantly expand one of the cornerstones of Colorado's open space and trails network and will protect the Front Range's mountain backdrop as one of the state's crown jewels," said Secretary Salazar. "I applaud all the partners who have come together with the state and local communities to connect people to the great outdoors and to take this key step toward realizing the Rocky Mountain Greenway as America's next great urban park."
The land exchange is a part of a larger set of transactions involving private landowners and other public entities that will result in the conservation of habitat and recreation lands. Together, these transactions seek to eliminate development threats to the western edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, connect the Refuge's protected plant and animal habitats to conserved land owned by local government open space programs, and buffer the Refuge near its southern boundary.
The Governor's Office, Colorado Attorney General's Office, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Public Health and Environment, State Board of Land Commissioners, Jefferson and Boulder counties, Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, the City of Boulder, City and County of Broomfield and City of Arvada have worked for over four years to complete this set of transactions that benefits the region's land and wildlife conservation and transportation needs.
"This addition to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge will help protect the future of both Colorado's natural and human resources," said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. "The additional land will create more quality open space and wildlife habitat northwest of Denver and will bring nearly $9.5 million to support public schools and the state school trust. We want to thank all the partners involved in this incredibly beneficial investment in Colorado's future."
"Colorado's public lands and wildlife form the very foundation of what makes our state a great place to live, work and raise a family," U.S. Senator Mark Udall said. "Expanding the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which I helped create during my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, ensures this important area will remain vibrant for both recreationists and wildlife for years to come."
"I commend the collaborative effort by all the parties to come to agreement on this important land exchange" Rep. Ed Perlmutter said. "Enhancing the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge connects our communities across the region, maintains our open spaces, protects our wildlife and improves recreational opportunities for generations to come."
"On behalf of the Colorado Natural Resources Trustees, we are proud of our early efforts to secure original seed money and work out some early land transactions," said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. "By establishing a framework for federal, state and local governments, this wildlife refuge creates an important link between existing open space in the Denver-metropolitan area."
"This type of collaborative partnership between local communities and state and federal governments and private landowners is the best way for conservation to proceed in the 21st Century," said Noreen Walsh, FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director. "Today, we have completed an exchange and a broader set of actions that will expand the Refuge, conserve wildlife habitat and provide a greater network of open space for the people and wildlife on the Front Range."
Today's land closing follows a favorable ruling by the federal district court in Colorado that the Service complied with the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act of 2001 and applicable laws. Last Friday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied an emergency motion to block the land transaction. As part of the refuge expansion, the Service transferred a 300-foot wide strip of land on the eastern boundary of the Refuge to the Jefferson Public Parkway Highway Authority for transportation improvements. The transfer of the Indiana Street transportation corridor is required by the Refuge's authorizing legislation.
The land exchange offers the protections of the National Wildlife Refuge System to a large, contiguous and intact tract of xeric tallgrass prairie. Xeric tallgrass prairie only exists on a narrow band of the Colorado Piedmont, east of the mountain front in Colorado. The xeric tallgrass prairie grassland on Rocky Flats and the City of Boulder Open Space nearby to the west are believed to be the largest remaining tracts of this plant community in North America. Additionally, portions of land that the Service will receive include additional riparian habit for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a species listed by the federal government as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.
Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge sits at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The refuge site played an important role in Cold War history as a Department of Energy-operated facility for the production of plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads. The refuge entered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stewardship in 2007 following the Environmental Protection Agency's determination that corrective cleanup actions had been completed.
For additional information on the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, please visit: http://www.fws.gov/rockyflats/.
Compare that with the release from WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild after the judge's ruling came down December 21:
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Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge Threatened by Tollway
Judge Rules for Highway Developers, Against Wildlife, Clean Air, and Open Space
Denver--Wildlife and clean air along the Front Range were dealt a setback today after a federal judge ruled that the eastern portion of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge could be sold to highway developers for the construction of a new high-speed tollway.
"This ruling opens the door for more sprawl and unplanned development along the Front Range, and at a time when open space is critical to our quality of life and the prosperity of our communities," said Josh Pollock, Conservation Director for Rocky Mountain Wild. "The highway won today, but in reality, our wildlife, our clean air, and our future generations have lost."
The ruling found that a December 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to transfer ownership of a three mile long, 300-foot strip of land along the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority was not illegal. The Highway Authority, a private entity, intends to construct a new four lane, high speed toll road adjacent to Indiana Street, which currently skirts the east side of Rocky Flats.
In early 2012, WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild joined the local communities of Golden and Superior in filing suit to stop the highway development. The groups' lawsuit challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to analyze the impacts of the highway development, even though it would destroy hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat, open the door for hundreds more acres of suburban development next to one of the Denver metro area's last large blocks of undeveloped open space, disturb miles of plutonium contaminated land, and fuel the region's air quality problems.
Among the wildlife species that stands be most impacted is the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a rare and threatened species that depends on high quality streamside habitats along the Front Range. The loss of open space has been cited as the primary threat to the Preble's mouse.
Often referred to as a "beltway boondoggle," the Highway Authority has forthrightly stated that its toll road will facilitate more urban sprawl and highway construction in Jefferson County. Eventually, the Highway Authority intends to link the toll road to C-470 and the Northwest Parkway, cutting across open space and through communities like Golden and Superior in the process.
"This isn't just a highway, it's a link in a chain of planned construction that promises to choke our open spaces, make our skies smoggy, and leave our wildlife without a home," said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians. "Today's ruling means more air pollution, more pavement, less wildlife, and less open space."
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service had claimed that as part of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge transfer, it would acquire a section of land owned by the State of Colorado, called Section 16, located southwest of Rocky Flats, the Service has stated on several occasions that the acquisition could happen independent of transferring ownership. Most recently, the Service acquired ownership of the minerals below Section 16, meaning that even if the transfer does not happen, Section 16 will remain largely protected.
"The Service's acquisition scheme would be like selling your yard to pay for your home remodeling project," said Nichols. "We can conserve our valuable open space and wildlife habitat without having to sacrifice them at the same time. We have better solutions, but unfortunately the federal court rejected our pleas for a smarter outcome."
The ruling, issued today by U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado Judge Philip Brimmer, rejects lawsuits filed by WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild, as well as by the Cities of Golden and Town of Superior. WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild intend to appeal the Judge's ruling and seek an emergency injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
From our archives: "Plans are heating up for the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum."