Rocky Mountain Arsenal's transition from Superfund site to wildlife refuge is complete

Fifteen years after Shell Oil Company and the U.S. Army began a massive, $2.1 billion cleanup at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the United States, the Army is getting ready to hand over the last of its cleaned parcels to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When that happens at a ceremony on Friday -- complete with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- the former chemical weapons and pesticide manufacturing facility will be fully transitioned into a National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest in the country.

Of course, it will be the only one where deer and coyotes roam next to toxic landfills that have been sealed with three-foot layers of clay -- landfills that the Army will continue to monitor to make sure their contents don't seep into the surrounding water.

But Shell site manager Roger Shakely says every inch of the refuge itself, which totals 15,000 acres, is clear. "It's safe for a person to walk anywhere on the refuge, but it will still be restricted," he explains. "Our top priority is the wildlife."

And the wildlife is abundant. On Wednesday, a pair of bald eagles sat in a tree by Lower Derby Lake, deer grazed by the landfill and a brand-new baby buffalo followed its mother around in the 1,500-acre bison grazing area (there are now 48 bison).

In about ten years, the arsenal should have 250 bison grazing on 12,000 acres of land, or roughly two-thirds of the refuge, says refuge manager Steve Berendzen. In the meantime, a new buffalo corral with eight-foot-high fences is nearly finished. The corral will be used to round up the animals occasionally to test them for disease.

And while plants and animals are the priority, humans will be welcome.

A new, $7.4 million visitors' center and entrance will be completed this spring, complete with a classroom and auditorium, and the trail system and fishing opportunities will be gradually expanded. In addition, Fish and Wildlife will take over security from the Army, meaning the refuge will have a friendlier demeanor at the entrance.

"We get about 25,000 visitors now, says arsenal ranger Sherry James. "But we're anticipating a major increase to about 200,000 people a year in the next five to ten years. Word is spreading quickly and people are realizing that this refuge is in their backyard."

More wildlife tales from our News archive: "Ken Salazar: Frustration riding high over his wild horse plan."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes