Pandemic drives Rocky Flats recreation, as local officials support greenway construction despite community concerns

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The pandemic brought more people to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and as local officials plan expansion of the area’s recreational offerings, some activists and community members are concerned about the potential health impacts of previous plutonium use at the Rocky Flats Plant.
Corinne Neustadter

During the Cold War, the Rocky Flats Plant south of Boulder produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. But the pristine beauty of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the land on which the plant was located and is a Superfund site, bears no scars of its atomic past, and continues to draw visitors to the recreational site. An estimated 40,000-50,000 people visited the Refuge this year, up from 20,000-30,000 visitors before the pandemic.

“With local travel restrictions last spring, we saw a jump in visitors as people weren’t able to hike in the mountains or go out of state for vacations, (which) really allowed us to bloom in terms of meeting recreational usage demands,” says Sarah Metzer, the Refuge’s visitor services manager.

But for longtime Arvada resident Tiffany Hansen, Rocky Flats’ scenery isn’t worth the risks. “I don’t believe that Rocky Flats should be open for recreational use,” she says.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has driven record numbers of people into Colorado’s outdoors, local residents are concerned about increased visitation at the Refuge, continuing debates about its complex past and future. Meanwhile, Boulder County Commissioners have greenlighted work on the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail, which plans to connect the Refuge with other nearby refuges and eventually Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Refuge has faced significant opposition since it opened, with the nearby Town of Superior filing a federal lawsuit to delay its opening over safety concerns. Additionally, seven Denver-area school districts have banned field trips to the Refuge, citing the lack of expert consensus on its health impacts.

During production, thousands of pounds of plutonium went missing at Rocky Flats, with its ultimate decade-long cleanup falling short of the Department of Energy’s original 65-year recommendation, concerning local residents over the safety at the now-wildlife Refuge.

Many residents emphasize that the 24,100-year half-life of plutonium — or the time it takes for half of the element’s isotopes to lose radioactivity — signifies the area will be dangerous for thousands of years. Plutonium emits alpha radiation particles that can cause lung damage if inhaled, which could be a hazard for Refuge visitors.

“As individual citizens, we have to be more responsible for our health and safety,” says Hansen, who grew up three miles from the site. She founded the advocacy group Rocky Flats Downwinders after personally experiencing health problems often associated with nuclear fallout. Through Rocky Flats Downwinders, she actively informs people about the health risks of living near Rocky Flats so they can make their own decisions about whether they want to live, recreate or raise children in the area.

“We should stop greenwashing Rocky Flats — we know we don’t know enough about its health impacts,” she says. “While I understand that neighborhoods around it want to normalize their experience and not be reminded of the Superfund site next to them, everyone needs to know about what it originally was.”

The Refuge currently offers four multi-use trails but hopes to develop its recreational infrastructure in the next few years, including expanding the Greenway Trail. Metzer hopes that by stressing the safety of recreating at the Refuge, a new chapter can be written for Rocky Flats.

“The hiking and biking trails, the biodiversity of the Refuge are stunning,” Metzer says. “If we educate people about the testing that’s been done, we can show people that it’s safe to work and play here, which lessens the area’s negative connotations.”

While officials maintain it will be safe for visitors to use, surrounding communities face concerns that the Greenway Trail could expose users to radiation across the Front Range.

On April 6, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners held a hearing to fund underpasses expanding the greenway into the county’s trail system and received 180 pages of public comments via email.
Lilli Warren, a nuclear guardianship intern at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, encouraged residents to send in public commentary before the meeting.

“In an ideal world, I think the Rocky Mountain Greenway is a good idea, just not yet,” Warren says. “In 2003, the Department of Energy estimated it would take 65 years to clean up the area, but two years later simply said it was cleaned up. The government messed up, and they need to take accountability to make it safer.”

Despite extensive public commentary, the commissioners, voting 2-1 without Matt Jones’ support, decided to approve funding for the underpasses.

“I was really disappointed and frustrated … the Commissioners made the decision based on the information as best as they could, but the whole process felt anti-democratic in how they presented information,” Warren says, noting the board only featured presentations in favor of the greenway. (There was no verbal public comment at the meeting.)

On April 13, Boulder City Council directed staff to also proceed with plans for the greenway without public comment.

As recreational usage of the Refuge increases, it is likely that other surrounding communities will make decisions about their participation in the greenway. For her part, Metzer hopes to educate new visitors at the Refuge by developing more interpretive opportunities that honor the site’s heritage.

“We can acknowledge what happened but also recognize the tremendous opportunity to protect one of the largest remaining tracts left of the Xeric tallgrass prairie, an endangered ecosystem,” she says. “When we think about history and look towards the future, we’re really focused on being good stewards and benefitting the community.”

To better educate area residents, Hansen is beginning to meet with local representatives to voice support for a formal memorial to commemorate those impacted by Rocky Flats that doesn’t require visiting the Refuge.

“We need to recognize the sacrifices that local communities made in the name of national security,” Hansen says. “To not have any signage at all indicating its history is really something else.”

Despite Rocky Flats’ rare, picturesque landscapes, its radioactive legacy will extend beyond increased outdoor usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, proving its soaring vistas and wide-open spaces will continue to be debated as it continues to attract visitors.