Opening the Gates: Making a National Wildlife Refuge Accessible to Diverse Communities


Scott Gilmore
New First Creek Trailhead entrance to RMANWR

As I contemplate how I would discuss the “Solution” to the challenges of making a seven-square mile piece of land, formerly considered one of the most polluted places on the planet, accessible to a community, I thought back to when I was a young man. During the 1980’s, growing up in the cultural and socioeconomic diverse community of Montbello located on the northeast side of Denver, I had no true connection to the natural world. We had a backyard and parks in the neighborhood, but there was never a push to engage with nature. Lucky for me, located within one mile of our home sat the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

We all knew that this is where “they” made stuff, bad stuff. At this facility, over a 60-year period, lots of things were produced: nerve gas, mustard gas, sarin bombs, fuel to take men to the moon, and numerous products and chemicals designed to kill people and insects. The by-products of these were placed in large pits in the center of the facility to sit and soak into the earth.

As a young man searching for a path in life, I would sneak through the strands of barbed wire ringing this property and visit the perimeter of the Arsenal. For me it was a place where I could connect with the natural world, observe nature at its fullest and view the amazing wildlife that thrived there. I would watch majestic Bald Eagles, fierce Ferruginous and Swainson’s Hawks, playful Coyote and Foxes, and lots of graceful Mule and White Tail Deer. Through these very personal trips, I decided to pursue a career as a wildlife biologist.

In 1992, this Arsenal of destruction and death I used to sneak into became the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge. I still live in the same neighborhood, and as I look back over the years I feel lucky that the Arsenal, now know as the Refuge, was in my neighborhood.
 

Scott Gilmore
Entrance to the First Creek Trail

Scott Gilmore
Youth from Montbello learning about nesting Bald Eagles at the RMANWR

Over the last thirty-five years, I managed a statewide Angler Education Program that taught hundreds of thousands of kids how to fish. In addition to that, I helped co-found the non -profit Environmental Learning for Kids, one of the most successful organizations in the country that introduces children of color to the natural world and careers in natural resource management.1 I now help manage Denver Parks and Recreation, one of the most amazing parks and recreation departments in the world. But one of my proudest moments was when I was asked to represent the City of Denver in the crafting of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This document lays out the 20-year management plan for this National Wildlife Refuge.2

The CCP consisted of four Alternatives. Alternative A was to “Take No Action”, Alternative B was to manage as a “Traditional Refuge”, Alternative C was to manage as an “Urban Refuge,” and Alternative D was to manage as a “Gateway Refuge.” The Alternative ultimately selected was C – to manage as an Urban Refuge. The lead strategy for managing the area as an Urban Refuge was to connect the diverse communities of the adjoining Montbello neighborhood to the Refuge through additional access points, educational programming and very targeted outreach efforts.

Through this planning effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we have made great strides in connecting the surrounding communities to the newly created Refuge. We have started creating pedestrian access points near the neighboring communities of color that provide more convenient opportunities for neighbors to visit to the Refuge. The City of Denver has also created the city’s largest open space, consisting of 200 acres of wildlife habitat, on the southeastern boundary of the Refuge. (The Refuge itself is outside of Denver but borders the city.). The community can now access the interior of the Refuge through the First Creek and Denver International Airport Open Space on the eastern edge of the Refuge.

I discussed this topic with my 19-year-old daughter, Samantha. She informed me that she had written an essay on this very topic. I realized that the Arsenal/Refuge had as much impact on her decision to study Environmental Science at the University of Denver as it did on me when I decided a generation before to study wildlife biology. After reading her paper, we decided to include some excerpts as part of the “Solution.” Here are those excerpts.

Outdoor education has gained tremendous traction in the last few decades as alternative methods of learning outside of the classroom are explored. As an educator whose classroom is routinely an urban lake, I have seen the positive impact of these changes. Take teaching lake ecosystems as an example. Instead of telling students to think about what organisms and abiotic aspects are in an ecosystem we can tell them to look. That simple distinction allowed by a change of scenery connects the kids more deeply to the environment. They experience the outdoors instead of just looking at it in a textbook.
***
The places that enable these opportunities need to be accessible to people for them to have any kind of impact. Urban park systems help to provide some access, but more can be done. Furthermore, the fact that one in three Americans don’t have a park or green space within a 10-minute walk of home means more public land needs to be acquired.3 Parks do more than educate kids. They also help communities. They serve as meeting places for residents to spend time outside. They also beautify and add to property value to the soundings homes. When people are in these parks they also can help create community awareness and monitor for crime. The article “Curing ‘Nature Deficit Disorder'” points out, “city neighborhood that are surrounded by green space statistically incur less crime” .4

Adding an urban park improves various aspects of a community at many different levels. The way to truly impact people is to show them that these places have something to offer. Going to a public park that has green grass and a playground is positive, but people should also be able to experience the natural ecosystem that this land is meant to inhabit.
There is something inherently mystical about seeing massive plains bison grazing with the Denver skyline behind them. It works to reinforce the idea that public lands, from urban parks to refuges to national parks, are for the people. These places are not removed from the daily hustle and bustle of modern life but rather are a part of it. Teaching people about their responsibility to the land and all its inhabitants emphasizes the importance of taking care and preserving it for the present and posterity.
***
Open space that is easily accessible to the community is critical for building early positive relationships between kids, parents, family units and communities and the natural world. These places improve our safety and appearance of our communities as well as provide outdoor classrooms.
***
Visiting places like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge reminds people of the impact humans can have on nature but also that it is the most resilient force on Earth. The combination of good government policy and community pressure will enable plants and animals to reclaim land that once was used to produce death. An access point that leads from my community to the Arsenal is still a task worked on tirelessly by many, and other public lands can improve access as well.

 

Kelly Uhing
Refuge staff managing shortgrass praire with controlled burns

As someone that lives in the Montbello community, I will continue to work on improving access to this wonderful natural space, but improving access to the Refuge is the easy part. What will be the more difficult is the task of educating and getting the community to understand the benefits of having the Arsenal/Refuge so near their homes. For so long, communities of color have been negatively impacted by toxic and environmentally degrading actions and policies. Due to that fact, it is incredibly hard to explain to a community that an historic toxic dump is now a world class National Wildlife Refuge and is located a stone throw from their homes.
 

Google Maps
Map of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

I will work closely with a wide variety of neighborhood groups consisting of local community organizations and city agencies such as ELK, the Denver Boys and Girls Club, Montbello 20/20, Montbello GirlsTrek, Denver Parks and Recreation, Denver Library and Denver Public Schools to spread the word about the amazing and wonderful natural space the Refuge represents. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown a true commitment to helping in this effort. As they led the effort to craft the Comprehensive Plan, the easy management solution would have been to manage the Refuge in a more traditional manner. That would mean a concentration on conservation efforts and wildlife protection. This would also mean limited access and community outreach efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take the easy road and have adopted the Urban Refuge model which will welcome more non-traditional visitors to the refuge, provide enhanced instructional programming and increased outreach efforts, and continue to improve access to the surrounding community. The adoption of the Urban Refuge model is one of the first positive steps to show the communities of color that surround the Refuge that they matter and that they are welcomed and encouraged to visit the Refuge.

I truly have been blessed over the past thirty years to not only work in the natural world but also to connect kids and adults of every walk of life to the joys of spending time outdoors. To have my daughter continue that same path is a testament to how important it is for families to spend quality time together exploring nature that surrounds their community. I have always told parents as I would take their child fishing for the first time that catching your first fish is one of those memories that you never forget. I would say “Don’t let me steal this memory from you and your child as you will never get this moment back”. That is a message to all to get outdoors, explore nature and create lasting memories.

 
References

    1. Environmental Learning for Kids [online]. www.elkkids.org.
    2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Draft comprehensive conservation plan and environmental impact statement– Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge 245 (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2015).
    3. Trust for Public Lands [online]. www.tpl.org.
    4. Tucker, P. Curing ‘nature deficit disorder’. The Futurist 40, 13 (May 2006).