Earth Day at Fifty: Five Decades, Ten Big Environmental Stories

Earth Day at Fifty: Five Decades, Ten Big Environmental Stories
The Center for Land Use Interpretation

On September 10, 1969,
hundreds of scientists, federal officials and local dignitaries descended on the Western Slope to witness a Colorado first: the explosion of a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb, detonated 8,400 feet beneath the surface of the earth outside of tiny, unincorporated Rulison. The blast was part of Project Plowshare, the federal government’s attempt to find “peaceful” purposes for its burgeoning arsenal of nuclear weapons. This particular experiment tested the possibility of using the bombs to loosen up the Piceance Basin’s natural-gas reserves for extraction — fracking with nukes.

The Rulison experiment wasn’t just a failure on its own terms, because — and who could’ve guessed? — the extracted natural gas was too radioactive to be safe. In many ways, it marked the end of an era in Colorado and beyond, a turning point after which more and more Americans began to wonder about the wisdom of doing things like using subterranean nuclear explosions to make drilling for fossil fuels easier.

A nationwide push for a more responsible, eco-friendly approach to natural resources and the environment was gaining momentum, and months after the Rulison blast, more than 20 million Americans participated in the first-ever Earth Day demonstrations. Even President Richard Nixon celebrated by planting a tree on the White House lawn, and later in 1970 signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Colorado, opposition to the Project Plowshare tests mounted, and another attempt at nuclear fracking conducted in Rio Blanco County in 1973 sparked a national outcry. This experiment failed, too, and it would be the last: A year later, environmental activists successfully pushed Measure 10, a constitutional amendment requiring any future nuclear detonations within state borders to be approved by voters.

In the past half-century, environmental policy in Colorado has been an uneasy push-and-pull between governments, activists and industrial interests, with residents caught in the middle. The Centennial State has come a long way since the days of fracking with nukes, but battles over issue after issue have unfolded along similar lines, and many are still playing out today. Here are ten of the biggest Colorado environmental stories since that first Earth Day.

Denver and Colorado boosters campaigned to win the 1976 Winter Olympics. - DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY
Denver and Colorado boosters campaigned to win the 1976 Winter Olympics.
Denver Public Library

Denver Hands Back the Olympic Torch

Many of the activists who opposed the Project Plowshare blasts were also fighting a battle against a different target: the 1976 Winter Olympics, which had been awarded to Denver a few weeks after the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970. Groups like Protect Our Mountain Environment, joined by upstart lawmaker Richard Lamm, rallied against plans that called for Nordic events in fragile foothills ecosystems and downhill courses on pristine Forest Service land.

“A state which has never taken down as much as a single billboard to improve the environment is not going to run an Olympics which the ecologists would like,” Lamm, who would later ride such pro-environment and anti-growth sentiments to the governor’s mansion, said in 1971. A year later, voters rejected the Olympics in a statewide referendum, making Denver the first — and so far, the only — city to withdraw as host of the games after they’d been awarded.

The Battle Over Rocky Flats

By the late 1970s, the anxieties of the atomic age were frequently boiling over at the gates of the sprawling Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, an aging complex northwest of Denver that manufactured plutonium cores for the country’s nuclear arsenal. As nearby residents complained of contamination on their property and workers began to experience serious health problems, the plant became a target of repeated protests by groups like the Rocky Flats Truth Force, and the subject of the award-winning documentary Dark Circle.

Conditions inside the plant grew so dire that it ultimately became the focus of a federal investigation, culminating in an FBI raid of the facility in 1989. After a grand jury investigation of the evidence seized in that raid, the Department of Justice negotiated a settlement with plant contractor Rockwell International, ensuring that no individuals would ever face criminal charges for the plant’s long list of violations — though the grand jury’s damning reports were ultimately leaked and published by Westword in September 1992. By then, Rocky Flats had already been shut down, and after years of cleanup, most of the site was converted into a wildlife refuge that opened to the public in 2018 — though concerns about safety persist.
The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant closed after an FBI raid in 1989. - DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant closed after an FBI raid in 1989.
Department of Energy

The Colony Project Goes Up in Smoke

Boom-and-bust cycles had been a fact of life in Colorado’s mountain towns since the days of the Pikes Peak gold rush, but in the modern oil economy, the story has played out on a larger scale than ever before. Backed by Exxon, the so-called Colony Project was a wildly ambitious plan to mine hundreds of millions of barrels of shale oil from the Piceance Basin, not far from the site of the Rulison blast. By the time environmental activists caught on to the size and scope of the Colony Project’s plans in the early 1980s, billions of dollars in investment were pouring into the Western Slope, where local officials were sketching out plans for a brand-new metropolis of 1.5 million people along Interstate 70 in the Grand Valley.

The influx of money and people radically transformed the area over the space of just a few years — and then Exxon pulled the plug in 1982. “Black Sunday,” as locals dubbed the day the company announced the project’s termination, brought an end to dreams of an oil empire on the Western Slope, though not to drilling there altogether. Today, one of the only remnants of the brief, wondrous oil-shale boom is the Battlement Mesa development, which was built to house Colony Project workers in 1980 and later converted into a retirement community, where some current residents are battling the modern fracking sites that have popped up nearby.

Lifting the Brown Cloud

In the aftermath of the Broncos’ second consecutive Super Bowl loss in 1988, CBS Evening News correspondent Bob McNamara heaped insult upon injury in his live report from Denver, quipping that the defeat was particularly hard to take “for a town that’s never been number one in anything but carbon monoxide levels.” Denver was outraged — “CBS Slur at Denver Brings Rash of Protests,” read the Denver Post’s front-page headline — but the wisecrack rang true.

Over the course of the 1980s, the “Brown Cloud” had gradually reached crisis levels, blanketing the Front Range with a dense layer of smog from car exhaust, road dust, wood burning and other sources. But starting around 1990, stricter clean-fuel standards and other measures taken at the local level led to gradual improvements in Denver’s air quality. We’re not out of the woods yet — ozone is still a problem, and scientists have come to understand that no measurable level of air pollution is truly safe — but at least our air isn’t the object of national ridicule anymore, and we’ve picked up a few Super Bowl championships, to boot.

Stopping the Two Forks Dam

Two decades of battles over issues of growth, sustainability and environmental stewardship reached an appropriately dramatic climax in the 1980s showdown over the Two Forks Dam, a long-proposed project that would have flooded six towns on the South Platte River southwest of Denver, created Colorado’s largest lake and rivaled the Hoover Dam in size. Proponents said that Two Forks was necessary to keep up with the metro area’s growing water needs; activists were appalled by the habitat destruction it would cause and said that plenty of other alternatives were available.

The environmentalists won a surprise victory in 1990 when the EPA blocked the Two Forks project on the grounds that it would violate the Clean Water Act. Though the decision was challenged in court, Denver Water soon abandoned the idea, and no comparably sized dam project has been proposed on the Front Range since — though with its ongoing population boom exceeding even the wildest expectations of the pro-growth development interests of the 1980s, water conservation issues haven’t gone away.

The Rise of the Outdoor Industry

It would pain Edward Abbey and other early conservationist radicals to see it, but along with the growing eco-consciousness of the average American came the inevitable commodification of the outdoors. As people increasingly sought out opportunities to hike, ski, raft, fish and otherwise enjoy Colorado’s beautiful mountain landscapes, these activities became more than a way to get some exercise and commune with nature — they were suddenly big business. Entire towns remade themselves in the hopes of chasing tourism dollars. In 1971, state officials estimated that seven million people had visited Colorado in the previous year; by 2018, that figure had risen to over 85 million.

Today, the state’s “outdoor economy,” as its boosters like to call it, employs hundreds of thousands of people and accounts for as much as 10 percent of its overall economic activity. Colorado has emerged as a mecca for Big Rec, attracting the likes of VF Corporation and the Outdoor Retailer trade show — though as anyone who’s sat in I-70 ski traffic or tried to park at a fourteener trailhead can attest, the boom has come with downsides, too.

Colorado Is Burning

The world had been celebrating Earth Day for a decade or more before most environmental activists even heard of what became popularly known as “the greenhouse effect”: a sharp rise in global temperatures caused by carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted into the atmosphere by human activity. By 1990, however, scientists were increasingly certain that man-made climate change was real, and increasingly vocal about the threat it posed — and not long afterward, Colorado and other western states began to suffer from its effects.

Nineteen of the twenty largest wildfires in Colorado history have occurred since 2000, in the driest two-decade stretch in the American Southwest since the late 1500s. Invasive bark beetles, which thrive in warmer climates, have killed off nearly a quarter of the state’s forestland. Farmers and ranchers have suffered billions in damages. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists are projecting scenarios so dramatic that they’ve invented new words to describe them — megadrought, desertification — and things will only get worse until global carbon emissions are reduced to zero.

Voters Green-Light Clean Energy

After Colorado lawmakers failed for the fourth time to join their counterparts in other states in enacting a Renewable Portfolio Standard — a law requiring utilities to generate a certain percentage of electricity from clean-energy sources — environmental activists took matters into their own hands with a ballot initiative in 2004.
Amendment 37, which required 10 percent renewable electricity by 2015, was approved by voters and later expanded twice by the legislature.

In Colorado and elsewhere, early measures pushing the electric sector toward renewables have paid dividends, with greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation on the decline and new wind and solar power now cheaper than ever. Utilities such as Xcel Energy, which furiously opposed Amendment 37, are now targeting once-unthinkable goals like an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
An oil and gas site in Broomfield, the site of several fracking wars. - ANTHONY CAMERA
An oil and gas site in Broomfield, the site of several fracking wars.
Anthony Camera

The Front Range Fracking Wars

Even as Colorado was making some progress on clean energy, however, its oil and gas industry was enjoying an unprecedented drilling boom. Since the mid-2000s, the so-called Shale Revolution, enabled by technological advances like fracking and horizontal drilling, had begun to unlock vast new reserves of oil and gas in the Denver Basin, an underground rock formation that stretches across most of the northeastern quarter of the state. Fracking rigs multiplied on the plains along the Front Range, and increasingly encroached upon fast-growing suburban communities north of Denver.

Residents fought to stop drilling projects that they felt were too close to their homes, and the industry fought back. Then-Governor John Hickenlooper joined industry groups in suing municipalities that attempted to restrict fracking within their borders, and the clash between anti-fracking activists and the industry’s allies in many ways defined state politics for most of the next decade. By the time he left office, Hickenlooper had overseen a staggering five-fold increase in the amount of oil produced annually in Colorado.

It took a new Democratic governor and a legislative majority for lawmakers to finally pass some of the oil and gas reforms that environmental and community groups had spent years fighting for. But even with the industry now in considerable financial turmoil, the long-term impacts of Colorado’s shale-drilling boom are likely to continue to be felt for years.

Coronavirus Changes Everything

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t a single catastrophe — it’s a context, the backdrop against which all events are going to occur for the foreseeable future, and environmental issues are no different. The drastic improvements in air quality in Denver and other cities around the world as vehicle traffic has declined are one of the most visible examples of the pandemic’s sudden, disruptive power — and, environmentalists hope, a glimpse at a cleaner, more sustainable future.

What they fear, however, is that polluters will use the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis to put those goals even further out of reach. Advocates were appalled last month when the EPA announced that it would suspend enforcement of clean-air regulations until further notice because of the outbreak, even as it and other federal agencies forge ahead with major initiatives aimed at rolling back environmental protections. As environmentalists celebrate the fiftieth Earth Day under the strangest circumstances in the holiday’s history, they do so knowing that the bizarre global standstill caused by the pandemic could be remembered as the moment that everything changed — for better, or for worse.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff