Denver skyline from Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
USFWS Mountain-Prairie

When the park across the street is a world away

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There's a big blank spot on the map of the Denver metro.

In the city’s northeast corner, the grid ends abruptly in an open prairie. Instead of cars and trucks, a herd of bison lumbers across the grass. Bald eagles perch in tall cottonwood trees, taking in the panoramic view of downtown Denver on the horizon.

This is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, 15,000 acres of open space within one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country. The land was first set aside by the Department of Defense during World War II for testing chemical weapons. Humans had to steer clear, but animals—deer, coyotes, hawks, owls, and prairie dogs—found refuge here as the area outside the military zone was paved over.

4 burrowing owlsCritters like this family of burrowing owls thrive on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By the 1990s, the military had discontinued its use of the site. Congress began transferring the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—kicking off a massive environmental cleanup. Slowly but surely, the onetime testing ground was transformed into a park. Bison were reintroduced in 2007. A new visitor center opened in 2011, and a 10-mile wildlife-viewing drive opened in 2016. Hiking trails offer an escape from the city barely 20 minutes from downtown. For nature-lovers in the Denver area, it sounds almost too good to be true.

And for many people, it is. Because the refuge has only a few access points, it can take longer to get there from a neighborhood on the park’s border than it does from the middle of the city. “For a lot of these neighborhoods, the nearest entrance to the refuge is miles away by car,” says Loretta Pineda. She’s executive director of Environmental Learning for Kids, or E.L.K., an organization that works to connect kids in northeast Denver to nature. “We serve mostly low-income families, with parents who might not have the time or resources to drive all the way around to the gate. You’d be surprised how many students don’t even know the refuge is here, even though they’ve grown up right next to it.”

A bison grazes with Denver's skyline in the background"We're truly an urban refuge," says David Lucas with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're in one of the fastest-growing metros in America—what a tremendous opportunity we have to welcome our neighbors to experience wildness so close to home."Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

That disconnect is one reason why The Trust for Public Land is teaming up with E.L.K. to build Montbello Open Space Park. Once an empty lot strewn with trash and dry weeds, the five-acre property is being restored to native shortgrass prairie, with trails, interpretive displays, and art designed with help from E.L.K. students. An environmental education center will become E.L.K’s new headquarters—the home base  the group has sought for almost 20 years.

The future park is just a mile from the refuge’s border. “We hope it draws people up the road to keep exploring the refuge,” says The Trust for Public Land’s Emily Patterson. “It’ll be a gateway into this beautiful shortgrass prairie ecosystem.”

Refuge managers are planning seven new entrances, including two that visitors will be able to reach via trails at Montbello Open Space Park. “Instead of driving miles around to the nearest vehicle entrance, families in the neighborhood will soon be able to stroll right into the refuge and begin to explore,” says David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And once you’re inside, you don’t have to go too far from the gate until the city fades away.”

Environmental Learning for Kids“When we’re out there with students and they experience that for the first time, I see a change in them," says Pineda with E.L.K. "Once they’ve found that sense of solitude, they want more.”Photo credit: Courtesy of Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK)

After decades of cleanup efforts, the refuge is ready for more visitors. “There are 120,000 school-aged kids living right around the refuge,” says Lucas, “so we have a tremendous opportunity to welcome the community and help foster a relationship with the natural world.” Lucas’s staff works with groups like E.L.K., local schools, scout troops, and Boys and Girls clubs to spread the word about the refuge and invite locals inside. And they’re working to lower the barriers—including the time it takes to get inside—that make it hard for families to explore it for themselves.

Pineda believes new access points and gateway trails—like those from the future Montbello Open Space Park—will make a difference for E.L.K. students and their families. “There’s that saying, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until now, neighbors just haven’t known about the peace and quiet out on the refuge, and how incredible that is,” she says. “When we’re out there with students and they experience that for the first time, I see a change in them. Once they’ve found that sense of solitude, they want more.”


Cathleen Wolff
AWESOME!! Who knows what legacy a park entrance closer to that many kids will leave. Kids that may now be inspired to chose careers that they may have never knew existed or would not have considered. Plus this way future generations will now care about an area and fight to protect it as they come to appreciate this resource.
Ron Hoham
Very awesome opportunities to connect with nature for children and adults in the Denver area.
Kathleen Hawk
In this day and age of electronics and rushing to do many activities after school or work, it is necessary to get away to nature. Life in the open spaces is pure magic and refreshes the mind and spirit for all. Enough with the "necessity" to concrete over anything wild and free. Enough! Life is too short to live surrounded by stress all the time. To cross a few streets to get to a fabulous world is extremely special and to be treasured for all generations!
Karen Gupton
It is so nice to hear of good being done for us now and future generations. I have never been to Denver but now would like to go threre and see the wonderful wilderness areas.
Roberta Bishop
It is a great idea. The refuge is a great place and gives people a chance to learn. The park should do the same both a good place for people to go.
Susie Wood
This is a positive, inspiring action that I hope will be modeled in other areas of our country. I am all for saving and restoring the natural habitat to the benefit of positive human health: exercise and wellness that comes only from nature, emotional and psychological benefits and the community, sociological benefit of respecting our environment, animals and each other. Way to go!!!! I just visited Denver last week and actually took an Uber ride to Eldorado Springs to see some nature, unfortunately they had a climbing emergency and closed the park. I would have loved to have visited something closer that I could actually see!!
Lois Klepin
What a great idea!
Michael Johnson
I think it is great to have this park close to where the public can see wild animals in their native habitat.
Debra Welsh
I am in favor of creating new entry points to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refugee, provided those new entry points do not harm deter from coming, the wildlife that currently live or seek seasonal refuge there. I have visited this refuge twice in the last year and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the herd of buffaloes and many form for roaming wildlife there.
Angie Unruh
I did not know about this place! How wonderful! I am already planning to visit and I know it would be so good for my grandson who is glued to electronics every hour after school until bedtime! I love all wildlife, but especially heartfelt is my love and caring for the bison. I have only social security for an income, but share my meager income, a little at a time, to animal organizations and the environment. Your organization is a worthy cause!
Delores Monica ...
Let the entrance always stay far away. An influx of people will ruin everything, as it always does.
I agree with this comment 100%. Humans feel entitled to barge into every corner of the planet and treat it as theirs to destroy. Non-human animals are barely hanging on in far too many places and MUST have spaces where they are free from human disturbances. Thousands of humans trampling flora, dumping garbage, harassing wildlife (including ENDANGERED SPECIES) and degrading the ecosystem pushes all species out of the prime areas and into smaller, less habitable, crowded spaces, where they are easy prey for predators and vulnerable to large losses in case of a disaster (natural or human-made). The world doesn't revolve around the whims of humans and while it is great that many want to go "bond with nature", those very actions spell the doom of nature. Every species has equal right to inhabit this planet, with adequate space, freedom, clean air, earth and water to go about it the best they can. Humans need to grow up and respect that the best way to SAVE other species, is to STAY AWAY from their habitats! People in the city can tear up concrete and turn dead areas of the city into whatever kind of park or nature preserve they want - bringing locals together on a project, learning about flora and fauna, increasing habitats for transient wildlife to visit, reducing carbon footprints from driving to the park as well as from planting trees, reduction in criminal activity in those areas, challenging people to drive less, etc. This would be win/win for all species as well as the planet.
Wicky Woo
I agree. While it is important for children, and adults, to experience and learn about native wildlife, plant and animal, and to revive in a natural setting, the potential to destroy the tranquility is too great. With the ever increasing size of the adjacent human population, if your efforts increase the popularity of this refuge, you will lose what it is you sought to build. Steps must be taken to protect the wildlife in the park. Keep all trails away from sensitive areas. Ensure that there are large tracts of prime habitat that are free from human intrusion. Care must be taken in planning, for while it may be good for neighboring humans, it will inevitably be destructive for wildlife. How much does the human population outnumber the bison? Or the owls? Or any of the other species? Humans have become a plague on the planet and the few remaining free lands should be vaccinated against them.
Michael R
Ms Monica says it. As much as a pretty picture of curious children learning about nature is (although I support that) I dread the segment of population who will access and destroy it just because they can. It is just depressing and unbelievable that the human race continues to be so destructive, and it is worsening. Please, leave well enough alone for these animals. They have survived and thrived despite the chemical weapon residue, but the humans will kill them for sure.
john vierra
simply beautiful,...
Marilyn Kerins
Please support the Montebello Open Space Preserve and help children learn the importance of open spaces as well as making it easier for city dwellers to get outdoors!
Patrick Matriscino
We need to preserve as much public lands as we can to leave something for our future children to see how things really were at one time !
Robert Pankiw
We all owe this planet our lives now weed need to give back
Sylvia Perreira
Mankind has done so much destruction in the name of survival, well being, ect..; when it really is only about MONEY, POWER and GREED!!! We (the people) who placed some of these decisions in place by those we put in office have a responsibility to keep our Lands PROTECTED at all cost for the future for many! We all must be Stuarts of the Public Lands in Trust!
lee causey
We all own this world, INCLUDING ALL THE ANIMALS!! They just can't speak for themselves! We need to protect all our are public land and our animals for suvival and protection of our world...someday so many will be extinted for all because of Greed!!

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