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.”
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.
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.
Salazar’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?
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.
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.