By Eric Freedman
On arrival, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is, frankly, uninviting. A bevy of heavy trucks heading to and from the adjacent aggregates mining site churn up clouds of dust as they pass the multi-padlocked refuge gate A faded sign with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) logo announces “AREA BEYOND THIS SIGN CLOSED. All public entry prohibited.” Just outside the refuge entrance, RVs are crowded into a storage area at the edge of an underground natural gas pipeline. Six white wind turbines tower incongruously nearby.
I couldn’t have written that vivid description of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado– the place where all of the country’s plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons had been manufactured during the Cold War and later a heavily contaminated Superfund site — unless I’d been there.
I couldn’t have described to readers of Earth Island Journal “the deteriorating remnants” of a former ranch that “sits low in a shallow fold of the land” of the refuge, its house “battered by the weather” and appearing “close to collapse.” I couldn’t have described to them the “white tips of two wind turbines” that were “looming incongruously above the hill behind the house.”
Nor could I have described refuge manager Dave Lucas bending over to yank out common mullen, a type of invasive weed, or pulling out a Geiger counter from his Ford 4X4 pickup to check radiation levels. Or summer snow still visible on the nearby Flatirons of the Rockies. Or the newborn elk calves with their mothers, part of a 200-member resident herd.
The refuge is a twist on the history of the development-driven American West. The size of this erstwhile nuclear facility — a toxic place that handled some of the most dangerous materials in the world — made it possible to ward off the dreams of developers, and to successfully argue to the public and to Congress against more development.
As I’ve noted before in a Knight Center column titled “Get off Your Butt and Report,” one benefit of environmental journalism is the opportunity to experience the environment. That’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Kodas — a faculty member at the University of Colorado Boulder — and I were doing one day last June on assignment for Earth Island Journal, accompanied by Lucas and a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service public affairs officer, Steve Segin. The project resulted in “Repurposing Rocky Flats” in the latest issue of the magazine.
Could I have written about Rocky Flats transformation and the controversies that still swirl around it without leaving my desk and my laptop? Why not simply use the phone and documents and, shudder, email, for my reporting?
Sure I could have written A story without setting my eyes or my feet on the refuge — but not THE story.
Ancient soils? Rare xeric tallgrass prairie? The coyote in the distance? Cattails in a seep? Mule deer bounding up a slope? Monitoring devices used to check groundwater for chemical or plutonium contamination? Power poles where predatory birds perch
None of those would have been in THE story if I hadn’t been in the place.
And we wouldn’t have seen the fence along the east edge of the refuge — and more importantly, what lay just beyond the fence: a massive residential development called Candelas with a projected 1,500 single-family homes ranging from the $300,000s to the $700,000s in subdivisions – described as “distinctive villages” – with names like “Mountainview,” “Skyview” and “Canyonview” and boasting of “views of the refuge, the Flatirons, the Denver skyline and Welton Reservoir.”
What initially struck us as we stood next to refuge manager Lucas’ pickup were huge piles of bulldozed dirt — soil that anti-nuclear activists who want refuge to remain off-limits to visitors — excavated to build a mega-mansion literally a stone’s throw from the fence. Our curiosity piqued by questions about who would pay a half-million dollars or more to live right next to a former nuclear processing site, we headed to Candelas after finishing with Lucas and Segin.
Sure, if we hadn’t been there we still could have written about the development, using material from its website and the illustrated brochure that prospective buyers receive. The brochure boasts of vast open spaces, “critical habitat for hundreds of acres of xeric tallgrass prairie” and the “crucial link” that elk and mule deer provide between metro Denver and “Colorado’s wildlife heritage.” We could have seen that four of its 12 pages are full-page photos of wildflowers and that only two pages discuss how Rocky Flats was used and cleaned up.
But we wouldn’t have been able to walk with a contractor’s sales rep onto the porch of a model home overlooking the refuge and hear her tell us that proximity to the former contaminated site “has been an issue. I definitely can talk around it. It’s their job to get educated,” she said of would-be homebuyers.
The Earth Island Journal article wasn’t based solely on our at-the-scene observations and conversations. I read a stack of research studies about the remediation and conversion to a refuge. I conducted phone interviews with a Department of Energy official responsible for the 1,000+-acre core area where more than 800 buildings once stood and that will remain barred to the public and with a leading local anti-nuclear and anti-refuge activist, the executive directors of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council and the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, and to academic experts at Regis and Rutgers University and the University of Northern Kentucky.
I interviewed retired U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colorado, who was involved in the legislation that turned the site over to the Fish & Wildlife Service. Since you won’t find her comments in the article — cut for length by the editors — here’s a bit of what she told me about the contentious debate about cleaning up Rocky Flats and converting it to a refuge: “First of all, you were dealing with ‘rice bowl’ issues” such as jobs, she said. “You instantly made lots of political enemies,” and proponents of a comprehensive cleanup and conversion were viewed as radicals. “I said, ‘Do it, do it, do it.’ At first nobody wanted to touch it. I was out there and they treated me as ‘Oh my God, there she goes again.’ Eventually, people realized it had to be dealt with. I think that’s the hard part — getting politicians to take a stand because it’s very controversial.”
Not everything else we saw and heard made its way into the article, of course, such as the children swimming at the development’s recreation center. But we wouldn’t have known about the community center, the swimming pool or the children if we hadn’t gone there.