Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Located just northeast of downtown Denver, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is a peaceful swathe of prairie, wetland and woodland habitats where wildlife thrives. The place used to be hell on earth. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States charged into World War II. Fearing that Germany and Japan would resort to chemical warfare, the Government was determined to produce it's own stockpile of chemical weapons as a deterrent. Major General William Porter, chief of the Chemical Warfare Service stated, "It is fully recognized that the best insurance against an attack by chemical agents lies not only in gas masks and protective clothing but also in the ability to retaliate immediately."

For strategic reasons, the 27 square miles of farm ground near Denver was chosen as the site for a massive, top-secret, chemical weapons manufacturing center. The government purchased the land and promptly evicted the 200 or so families living there. Construction of the Arsenal began on June 30, 1942. During its first year, the south plants operated around-the-clock producing horrific war chemicals such as mustard gas, lewisite and chlorine gas. Lewisite was particularly lethal, it's manufactured by combining chlorine, acetylene and arsenic. The arsenal was also creating incendiary munitions like the napalm bomb. During "Operation Meetinghouse", the single most deadly bombing raid in history, around 1,700 tons of RMA-produced-firebombs were dropped on Tokyo obliterating a large section of the city.

In addition to manufacturing weapons, the Army established a prisoner-of-war camp at the arsenal. The prison was operated between November 6, 1943 and April 1, 1946. Known as the Rose Hill POW Camp, it confined German soldiers that were being captured in North Africa. Work slowed after WWII but when back on wartime status during the Korean War, production increased briskly. Military spokesmen boasted that the arsenal could turn out millions of incendiary bombs a year when operating at full capacity. The RMA pumped out M34 grenades, artillery shells with distilled mustard and cluster bombs.

After the Korean War ended, our relationship with communist Soviet Union deteriorated. As tensions mounted, the RMA developed a frightening, new chemical agent in a secret installation at the north plants. Known as GB nerve agent or sarin gas this deadly weapon was as serious as the atomic bomb. Throughout the 1960s, the arsenal's hydrazine plant mixed liquid rocket propellants for the Air Force. RMA-produced-fuel powered Apollo II all the way to the moon. Adding to the contamination nightmare was the fact that the Army leased a portion of the facility to Shell Oil Company for the production of pesticides and herbicides. A long list of other deadly products was manufactured and processed by that private industry.

A byproduct of the arsenal's enormous production was millions of gallons of toxic waste. Conforming to disposal practices that were common at the time, the waste products were released into natural bodies of open water. When these reservoirs overflowed with poisonous fluid, the Army constructed a man-made, waste holding, evaporation pond known as Basin F. The sludge in one basin became so toxic that birds died within minutes of landing on it. In 1962 they tried using a new Pressure Injection Disposal well and pumped treated waste material 12,000 feet underground but the well had to be shut down four years later because the liquid injection triggered a series of earthquakes in the area.

After the toxins began turning up north of RMA in water used for drinking and irrigation, the outraged public complained that the arsenal stored enough nerve gas "to kill every man, woman and child in the world." By the 1970s, the arsenal's primary mission was the disposal of stockpiled warfare materials but the destruction of chemical agents created extremely toxic byproducts as well. Often referred to as the most polluted square mile on Earth, the RMA was placed on the EPA's National Priorities List of most contaminated superfund sites. Since then, the mission at RMA has been the total cleanup of the modern day Gehenna under the supervision of federal, state and local agencies.

The impossible task was hazardous and demoralizing, there seemed to be no end in sight. What happened next was a miracle. On a dreary winter day in 1986, a worker spotted what must have seemed like apparitions emerging out of the mist. They were angels sent from heaven. There was a communal roost of bald eagles on the site! At the time these birds were critically endangered and sightings were unheard of. The astonishing discovery prompted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to become involved with managing wildlife at the arsenal. Officials soon found out that despite the severe contamination, more than 330 species inhabited the military grounds.

Apparently, the protection from urban sprawl and development allowed the deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, hawks, owls and white pelicans to flourish throughout the site's abandoned fields and woods. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act was passed in 1992. The United States Congress declared that the site would become a national wildlife refuge when the environmental restoration was complete. It was a positive development during the act of contrition. Enthusiasm for the remediation was immediately invigorated by the motivation to protect our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.

As of September 2010, after 30 years and more than $2 billion, the clean-up was considered officially complete. A small herd of wild bison transferred from Montana was introduced into the park and restoration of the shortgrass prairie with native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs is being finished. The urban refuge features a green-built visitor center that provides environmental education and interpretive programs. There's also catch-and-release fishing, hiking trails, and a self-guided, wildlife-drive auto-tour. Just decades ago rabbits were used to test for sarin gas leaks, today buffalo roam, coyotes howl, owls burrow and eagles soar.

The arsenal is one of the nation's largest urban, wildlife refuges

As of September 2010, the clean-up was considered complete

The shortgrass prairie is being restored to its natural state

The new visitor center is green-built

Inside the visitor center, exhibits document the RMA's history

The Bald Eagles were like angels sent from heaven

Deer flourish throughout the site

Bison from Montana were introduced into the park

Birds are using the nest boxes

Construction of the Arsenal began in the summer of 1942

At one time, this may have been the most toxic place on earth

A rabbit is used to check for Sarin nerve gas leaks


  1. I didn't expect that origin story for a wild life refuge. Honestly, I'd be afraid of the area even after the clean-up was said to be complete. How can you ever get rid of the traces of such toxic waste?

    1. I know, that's kind of how I feel. It's an eerie place to visit when you know all of the history. The cleanup is supposedly EPA approved and the wildlife seems to be thriving. Some say it's so clean, you can eat off the dirt with a spoon.

  2. I've heard of this place! The World Without Us also mentions it. Nature is pretty amazing though. Yes, there may be long term effects, but I had read about how ppl in Japan who survived Hiroshima remediated themselves eating lots of shredded daikon or boxes of fresh peaches, etc.

    1. It took thirty years of intense and thorough cleanup spurred on by the bald eagles. Hopefully with our help, nature will continue to reclaim the arsenal. Right now it's a pretty interesting place to visit.

  3. It looks beautiful - hopefully they did a good job with the clean-up. For all those species to flourish so well, they must have done something right.

    1. The cleanup is EPA approved but I do hear people joke about driving past at night and seeing deer glowing in the dark.

  4. I have lived near the RMA since 2001. In that time I have gotten sicker and sicker. On the advice of my Mom, I went and started looking up info on this place. I found so much stuff it boggles the mind. It was used for a Concentration Camp for Germans at one time. When they dug a well to get rid of waste they caused some pretty significant earthquakes. The list of chemicals that have been there at one time or another is huge. I am currently in the process of listing all those chemicals on one document.

    The refuge is beautiful, I love seeing the wild life that is there and have been on several of their tours. I have pictures of the bald eagles, coyotes, hawks, baby buffalo, and other things. I saw some baby deer the other day when we drove by to take me to the doctor. I am glad they aren't affected by the left over chemicals.

    If you want to find out more info just search it, you'll find more than you need or want on it's history, military usages, and much much more.

    1. Thanks for the comments and information. I hope you're feeling better now. I understand what you're saying. Because of the unbelievable history, there is an eerie feel to the place. The cleanup is supposed to be thoroughly complete. We enjoyed our visit to the refuge and visitor center. The variety of wildlife that lives there is remarkable.

  5. If you don't mind these creepy crawlies, then there are a few other places you can spot them.

  6. Browning found the solely sense perceptions not as important as the intuitive and instinctual vision of the semantic aspects of objects in nature. trees game


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