Urban Wildlife Refuge Part 6: From Wartime to Wildlife at Rocky Mountain Arsenal

A former Superfund site is now one of Denver's greatest natural close-to-home wildlife treasures. It's preserve made by the people for the people (but mostly for the animals).

By Kristen Pope December 11, 2015

Right after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army established Rocky Mountain Arsenal, just minutes from downtown Denver. This wartime chemical weapon manufacturing facility was strategically located far from either coast and among big mountains that were difficult to maneuver planes around. The bustling nearby city could provide a workforce, and it was close to railroads for transporting raw materials and completed products.

After the war, the Shell Chemical Company began making herbicides and pesticides at the plant, ceasing operations in 1982. Just a few years later, bald eagles were discovered roosting on the site and local residents urged officials to clean up the area and establish a wildlife refuge.

In 1987, the area became a Superfund site and remediation began. In 2012, after the cleanup was complete, the land was transferred to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage and the refuge received 23,000 visitors that first year alone, according to refuge manager David Lucas.

The 15,000-acre site is one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the U.S., and the terrain includes lakes, wetlands, woodlands and prairie grasslands. It offers miles of trails and opportunities for hiking, photography, a self-guided wildlife driving tour, wildlife observation, environmental education, fishing, and more.


“It’s an asset to our community and an amazing story that led to it,” Lucas says, noting the open space wouldn’t have been preserved so close to urban areas if not for the refuge’s unique history.

He also notes the refuge’s restoration projects are ongoing. “We’ve been looking to actively restore 12,000 acres of the site,” Lucas says. “The bison are our big habitat restorers, along with fire. We have a lot of prescribed fire here.”

The refuge’s top priority is providing refuge for wildlife, and it is now home to 330 species of animals, including bison, deer, bald eagles, coyotes, prairie dogs, raptors, great horned owls, and other animals. Migratory birds fly overhead and a variety of fish swim in refuge waters.

Located so close to an urban center, the refuge is also a great location for environmental education. The community near the refuge includes historically under-served and low-income residents. “One of the most exciting things we’re involved with is working to connect the next generation of conservationists in these urban neighborhoods that are typically not the focus of this kind of work,” Lucas says. In the past year, they’ve seen more than 300,000 visitors, with many more expected in the coming years.

Urban residents can find a great place to enjoy catch-and-release fishing along Lake Mary Trail's floating boardwalk during the April 15 to October 15 fishing season.

Urban residents can find a great place to enjoy catch-and-release fishing along Lake Mary Trail’s floating boardwalk during the April 15 to October 15 fishing season.

“The only way to get through conservation challenges is to connect and engage this younger generation,” Lucas says. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge team works with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s to sponsor some of their programs, and other outdoor retailers can help in a variety of ways.

“There are opportunities to provide direct contributions, opportunities for volunteer work where folks come in and take on a project, to bridge the gap between the community and public lands, and opportunities to sponsor events,” Lucas says, noting they have several large events each year. One upcoming opportunity to help with the refuge is at the Annual Bison Roundup.

Lucas notes many local organizations are working together with the refuge, saying, “We have 15-20 organizations right around here focused and working together on the goal of how to connect the urban community to wildlife and conservation and take care of our public lands. The possibilities are unique and exciting.”

Read about five other urban refuges from coast to coast and our tips to help outdoor brands and retailers tap into these unique resources.

1. America’s First Urban Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia’s John Heinz at Tinicum
2. New Orleans’ Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
3. Portland’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge
4. L.A. River and the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge
5. Albuquerque’s Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
6. Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Visit the Fish and Wildlife Service to find the refuge closest to you.