Rocky Flats still off-limits during National Wildlife Refuge Week

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This is National Wildlife Refuge Week, and the feds are encouraging you to "see what wildlife refuges are doing to conserve America's wildlife heritage." But when I asked if I could see Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the regional U.S. Fish & Wildlife office declined that request, and instead suggested a visit to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

That's one of 558 refuges in the national system (the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area announced last month by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was the most recent addition) started by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal is one of the refuges closest to an urban area -- and it was the site's proximity to metro Denver that made it so attractive to the war effort during World War II, when the government needed a place to process weapons and bought up farms on the northeastern edge of Denver.

After the war, the Arsenal added commercial operations, largely run by Shell -- and when the state finally forced the feds to clean up the Superfund site to an appropriate level, it was a joint project between Shell and the U.S. Army. Today the Rocky Mountain Arsenal is a popular place to visit, with a newly spruced-up visitor's center and a website that bills it as "A Place for Wildlife and People," with this description:

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest urban Refuges in the country. It is located just northeast of Denver and within a 30-45 minute drive from most metro areas. The Refuge supports more than 330 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish!

The explanation of Rocky Flats is much longer -- but then, people can't see the place for themselves, since the nuclear-weapons-plant-turned-wildlife-refuge has not yet opened -- and there is no scheduled opening date.

Rocky Flats is also close to the metro area -- sixteen miles upwind from Denver -- and its location was a draw when the feds decided to put the plutonium-trigger processing plant in Colorado back in 1951. It closed for good in 1989, after it was raised by the FBI, and although the cleanup was reportedly done years ago, Fish & Wildlife declined my request to visit the site.

But anyone can access this description on the official website:

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge comprises much of the former Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. The Rocky Flats 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. While Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act in 2001, the site's industrial legacy required that cleanup actions were undertaken prior to its transfer to the National Wildlife Refuge System. The refuge entered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stewardship in 2007 following the EPA's determination that corrective actions had been completed.

Since that time, the refuge has remained closed to the public due to a lack of appropriations for refuge management operations, but it continues to protect important wildlife resources, including critical habitat for the federally threatened Preble's meadow jumping mouse. It also contains hundreds of acres of rare xeric tallgrass prairie, it is home to populations of state game species such as mule deer and elk, and it provides an important link between existing open space in the Denver metropolitan area

While you won't be able to visit Rocky Flats during National Wildlife Refuge Week, you can at least stop by the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum in Arvada, which isn't officially open but does have its first exhibition, by the Atomic Photographers Guild, titled Behind the Atom Curtain: Life and Death in the Nuclear Age. You can see the photo show between 1 and 4 p.m. Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays through November. Find more information here.

Twenty years ago, news was leaking out that Colorado's first-ever special grand jury had wanted to indict eight individuals for alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Two decades later, the grand jurors still can't talk about their deliberations -- but Westword did, breaking the original story in September 1992 and publishing an update in "Gag Reflex."

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