Rocky Mountain Greenway’s neighborhoods to nature

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar go for a spin near Standley Lake moments after the ceremonial snipping of the ribbon. Photo/Robert Mansheim, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar go for a spin near Standley Lake moments after the ceremonial snipping of the ribbon. Photo/Robert Mansheim, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rocky Mountain Greenway seeks to link neighborhoods to nature

by Allen Best

With the snip of a ribbon Saturday morning, a 25-mile trail linking three national wildlife refuges in metropolitan Denver was formally opened. Now, it’s on to Boulder and then Lyons—and, perhaps someday, to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s called the Rocky Mountain Greenway.

A dais set up in the park adjacent to the Standley Lake Library in Arvada was loaded with local, state and federal politicos. Trails and open space enjoy broad public support. It was a time for lavishing credit and collective congratulations for this feat.

“In Colorado, we love our outdoors, we love our open space, and we fight like heck for it,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Permutter, whose district includes all or most of the new trail.

But trails do not create themselves, as Perlmutter alluded to in his mention of “controversies from time to time.”

Map of Rocky Mountain Greenway

Credit for this vision can be traced most directly to Ken Salazar, the former Interior secretary and U.S. senator from Colorado. In the 1990s, though, he was state attorney general, and with assistants he tinkered with how to leverage the cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal into greater trail connectivity to the lower income neighborhoods of Commerce City.

Created during World War II for the manufacture of poisons, the arsenal had continued into the 1960s to manufacture poisons, both for military and civilian use. Meanwhile, after World War II, another large block of land had been reserved northwest of Denver. Called Rocky Flats, the site was used to create plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs.

In 2009, by then secretary of Interior, Salazar shared a vision of linking the two former military sites. Both are now national wildlife refuges, and between them is a third, Two Ponds, the smallest of all the national wildlife refuges, located near 80th and Kipling in Arvada.

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A final link of the Rocky Mountain Greenway from Arvada to a Westminster open space was opened on Saturday morning with a ceremony at the Standley Lake Library in Arvada.

I remember reading about this vision as outlined in one paragraph of a Denver Post story. Whatever is he thinking, I wondered? Nearly all of that land is developed for residential, commercial or industrial purposes. How do you carve a greenway from such densely developed urban fabric?

By 2011, Salazar’s idea had advanced to a formal proposal under the Department of Interior’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. (And in 2012, I wrote about this and other urban trails in a major story for Planning Magazine.)

Now, the Rocky Mountain Greenway is a reality: You can pedal, walk or run for 25 miles between the two big wildlife refugees. And Ginny Brannon, of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, in informal conversation after the ceremony, said funding is largely in hand to complete trail linkages from Rocky Flats through Boulder and to Lyons. Beyond that, the way forward is less clear. But, if that final link from Lyons to Rocky Mountain National Park gets figured out, it would amount to an 80-mile trail.

Last Child in the WoodsSalazar’s idea, of providing links to nature—a word cited frequently at the dedication—is not unique. Many people share belief that Americans have become too disconnected from the land and water and wildlife. Richard Louv has written several books about the phenomenon, most prominently “Last Child in the Woods.”

Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, laid out all of this in opening remarks at Standley Lake. He called the Rocky Mountain Greenway “a project of significant national importance.” The trail is important, he explained, because it provides connectivity between communities with trails and recreation, because it provides safe and affordable access to undeserved populations, and because it’s emblematic in promotion of healthy lifestyles.

Dan Ashe, executive director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the disconnect between people—especially children—and nature in the United States is of great concern. “Who is gong to work to protect these open spaces of tomorrow?” he asked, if there is no constituency grounded in love of nature, wildlife and opens spaces?

Ken Salazar

Ken Salazar

Salazar himself, while bubbling with enthusiasm, said little about the vision he had nurtured. Hickenlooper, though, promised even greater connectivity of trails, from Wyoming to New Mexico along the Front Range, and from DIA to Grand Junction—or even to Moab. Looking sporty in a silky bicycle jersey, then caught himself. “We don’t really want people going to Utah,” he added, drawing a laugh.

From the library ground, several hundred people walked and bicycled along the Farmers’ Canal to a bridge that was formally opened. From the bridge, you can look out over Standley Lake, which has eagles and other wildlife nesting along its shores, and beyond it to Longs, Meeker and other peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park.

It’s not hard to argue that this reservoir, despite being a human artifact, the result of a dam and of water imported from Clear Creek some miles to the south, provides a setting for nature. But what about the other trails, most of them previously built, that now link the two big wildlife refuges.

Walking along the irrigation canals in Arvada is soothing, even if you can see into people’s kitchen windows. Some of the Rocky Mountain Greenway consists of trails bordering manicured bluegrass. Many sections are within earshot of noisy highways, some deafeningly so. You can see a power plant, an oil refinery, warehouses, shopping strips and even chain link fences topped with barbed wire.

Is that nature? That was at the core of my puzzlement in 2009 when I read about Ken Salazar’s vision. This might sound contrarian or even condescending, but it is not intended as such. Knowing some of these neighborhoods between the three wildlife refuges (all within Perlmutter’s district, he noted), I wondered just what was being proposed? Could a greenway truly be beveled into this densely settled urban fabric?

Does a backyard with roses constitute nature? It’s a question I puzzle over even now, having lived in the city for 18 years. I yearn for what I once had, with a national forest almost literally outside my door. Try as I might, I find it nearly impossible to get away from the roar of traffic and, almost equally frustrating, a definition of nature as something that is manicured and treated with chemicals to eradicate the undesirables such as dandelions.

For that matter, this version of nature surely isn’t what Salazar knew growing up in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, on a ranch not far from the Rio Grande, the towering peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range and San Juan Mountains as a backdrop.

The Rocky Mountain Greenway, I think, is best viewed as a compromise—but, as Salazar intended, one that leaves us better than what existed before. His greenway is not to be confused with a wilderness area or even the sort of undeveloped strips that Chicago, with its foresight, decided to retain. It’s something else.

Perhaps the best answer I got as I puzzled after hearing “nature” invoked so often at the dedication came from Ginny Brannon, one of the state of Colorado’s point people on the project development. It’s all about access, she replied. In other words, you can get on the Rocky Mountain Greenway and eventually find a place that better accords with your view of nature.

A herd of elk at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo/Ryan Moehring, USFWS

A herd of elk at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Ryan Moehring/USFWS

With its bison herds and black-footed ferrets, the 15,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge provides a sense of nature that many of us miss. The 5,000-acre Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge may provide that, too, when it is opened to the public in December 2017. Whether it’s fit for public visitation even now after the cleanup remains a point of public dispute. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Yesterday, at Standley Lake Library, was a time of celebration, and justifiably so. But the neighborhood to nature connections have increments.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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3 Responses to Rocky Mountain Greenway’s neighborhoods to nature

  1. Susan Shirley says:

    The cleanup of Rocky Flats was estimated at $37 billion, yet was completed by the lowest bidder for $7 billion. There is a leaking landfill which a member of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council admits is of unknown character. The EPA has yet to establish safety limits for airborne plutonium, but says the hazards are within the acceptable range. There are houses sitting right next to the site, some of whose owners had no idea what went on at Rocky Flats (hint: criminally negligent handling of not only plutonium but many other toxic substances) and a thousand-student capacity school for K-8 just broke ground. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and is deadly in unimaginably tiny quantities. I cannot see how any of this makes sense, yet it’s being celebrated as some kind of environmental breakthrough. The housing development has as its motto “Life Wide Open,” which I’m afraid must refer to the state of a person in surgery for the cancer they may develop as a result of their housing choices. Sad, sad.

    • Archer Yates says:

      Are there any reasons not to put Greenway signs along Little Dry Creek trail. I thought it was supposed to end a 2 ponds wildlife area but I was at Pamona behind King Supers.
      As for the people wanting to fight the old wars of Rocky Flats, did they ever consider that there wasn’t that much plutonium that escaped. They looked and haven’t found any. The communities approval for matching funds have placed a restrictions of soil sampling results. That seems reasonable, so give it a rest.

  2. RF says:

    INFORMED CONSENT TO USE THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN GREENWAY THROUGH ROCKY FLATS WILDLIFE REFUGE NUCLEAR CONTAMINATION

    “INFORMED CONSENT PUBLIC ADVISORY
    THE STATE OF COLORADO HAS DETERMINED THAT MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC SHOULD BE INFORMED OF THE FOLLOWING FACTS WHEN DECIDING WHETHER TO ENTER ROCKY FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE:

    ROCKY FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE WAS A NUCLEAR WEAPONS MANUFACTURING PLANT FROM 1950-1991. DURING THAT TIME, THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (DOE) AND ITS CONTRACTORS BURIED, BURNED, AND SPRAYED PLUTONIUM AND OTHER RADIOACTIVE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ONSITE AT ROCKY FLATS.

    SOME OF THESE ACTIONS WERE LEGAL, OTHERS ILLEGAL.

    SINCE 1992, THE DOE HAS UNDERTAKEN CLEANUP OF THE SITE. THE DOE, THE UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA), AND THE STATE OF COLORADO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT, AFTER THE CLEANUP IS COMPLETE, DETECTABLE LEVELS OF PLUTONIUM AND OTHER RADIOACTIVE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS WILL REMAIN IN THE SURFACE AND SUBSURFACE SOILS AND IN THE GROUND WATER, AND MAY BE PRESENT IN DUST THAT BECOMES AIRBORNE AT THE SITE. PERSONS ACCESSING ROCKY FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE MAY BECOME EXPOSED TO RADIOACTIVE AND OTHER HAZARDOUS MATERIALS THROUGH DUST IN THE AIR OR THROUGH CONTACT WITH THE SOILS. THE RADIOACTIVE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS ARE INVISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE, AND MAY BE CARRIED HOME IN DIRT ON SHOES AND BELONGINGS.

    PLUTONIUM REMAINS RADIOACTIVE FOR TENS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS, AND IT CAN BE HARMFUL IN VERY SMALL AMOUNTS IF INHALED, INGESTED, OR OTHERWISE TAKEN INTO THE BODY, SUCH AS THROUGH AN OPEN WOUND.

    THERE IS CONTROVERSY WITHIN THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY CONCERNING ACCEPTABLE LEVELS OF RISK FROM SUCH EXPOSURE AND THE METHODS OF CALCULATING THAT RISK, AND THERE IS CONSIDERABLE SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY ASSOCIATED WITH THESE ISSUES.

    ACCORDING TO NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL STANDARD-SETTING BODIES, THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL OF HUMAN EXPOSURE TO PLUTONIUM OR OTHER MATERIALS THAT PRODUCE IONIZING RADIATION. CANCER AND GENETIC DEFECTS ARE KNOWN EFFECTS OF EXPOSURE TO LOW LEVELS OF IONIZING RADIATION. CHILDREN AND THE ALREADY INFIRM ARE THE MOST AT RISK FROM LOW LEVELS OF IONIZING RADIATION.

    THE EPA AND THE STATE OF COLORADO, USING MATHEMATICAL MODELING, HAVE DETERMINED THAT CLEANUP OF WHAT IS NOW THE ROCKY FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE HAS MADE THE REFUGE SAFE FOR VISITORS AND WILDLIFE REFUGE WORKERS. THESE AGENCIES HAVE ALSO DETERMINED THAT THE CLEANUP COMPLIES WITH THE WRITTEN AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE EPA, THE DOE, AND THE STATE.

    IN LIGHT OF THE SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTIES AND THE CONTROVERSIES ABOUT RISK, MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC CONSIDERING A VISIT TO ROCKY FLATS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE SHOULD DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES WHETHER THE RISKS ARE ACCEPTABLE TO THEM AND THEIR FAMILIES.”

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