Locals and tourists can soon get a whole new view of the Colorado wilderness as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge opens to the public Sept. 15.

Rocky Flats covers 5,237 acres (2,119 hectares) of wilderness, home to a variety of animal and plant life. It's easily accessible from Denver while still providing plenty of protection for wildlife to use as a migration route. In short, Rocky Flats helps meet the demand for more publicly accessible outdoor space while still serving the needs of the flora and fauna in the area.

Rocky Flats is not without controversy, however, as it was once home to a plutonium trigger plant for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Preserving nature against development

When the refuge opens to the public, there will be 11 miles of trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding. Those looking to explore more of Colorado's wilderness will benefit from the Rocky Mountain Greenway trail system connecting Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Two Ponds National Wildlife refuges and Rocky Mountain National Park to Rocky Flats. As more funding becomes available, Rocky Flats will offer a visitors center with exhibits on the refuge's prairie and wildlife; guided tours and hikes will also be available.

While these are the perks for the humans, regional wildlife benefits as well. The refuge's primary purpose, since its formal establishment in 2007, has been to serve as a home to 239 migratory and residential species, including falcons, deer, elk, coyotes and more. The federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse resides in the refuge.

Especially as the surrounding urban area grows — Denver is a mere 16 miles away — the refuge affords wildlife an opportunity to live and migrate undisturbed by commercial and residential development. Establishing the refuge wasn't easy, however, as both Jefferson and Boulder counties have been pushing ever closer to the site.

A deer stands in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge against the skyline of an unidentified Colorado city Commercial and residential development surrounds the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

"There are so many interests. We can't just put a stake in the ground. You have to work with local governments, stormwater districts, developers…" federal refuge manager Dave Lucas told The Denver Post.

The counties are working together to preserve as much land as possible around the refuge, particularly along its western edge and Colorado State Highway 93. The two counties jointly purchased a 440-acre ranch and are looking for more land to buy and maintain as open spaces to prevent nature from being completely consumed.

"This is native prairie out here. Once it is gone, it is gone," Lucas said. "The race is on to protect the areas we can protect now, before they are gone. We have a large landscape now — around Rocky Flats — and everyone is starting to push in the same direction."

Nuclear history

Rocky Flats' history has also made the refuge's launch as a public space difficult.

The center of the refuge contains a 1,300-acre fenced-off area managed by the Department of Energy (the refuge itself is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). This area was once home to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. From 1951 to 1989, this plant manufactured plutonium triggers, or pits. When compressed, these spheres provide the catalyst for a nuclear explosion.

The story of the plant's closing is a particularly wild one. It involves the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency raiding the nuclear plant and a grand jury that still can't talk about its deliberations regarding indicting individuals from Rockwell International, the company that managed the plant for the DOE. (Westworld has much more information on this chapter of the refuge's existence, if you're curious.)

The site of Rocky Flat nuclear plant following cleanup in 2007. Following a long process, the Rocky Flat nuclear plant site, pictured here in 2007, was declared clean. (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

The plant and its surrounding grounds — the refuge itself is comprised of the buffer region around the plant — required a $7.7-billion Superfund cleanup effort that was completed in 2006. Today, the federal government assures the public that the refuge is completely safe for people to explore.

"After years of rigorous cleanup efforts, and multiple health studies, the refuge is finally ready for recreational use. I will be visiting with my family to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife," the EPA's regional administrator, Doug Benevento, told the Post. Benevento oversaw the cleanup for more than a decade.

Still, many aren't convinced. A lawsuit regarding the safety of the refuge, particularly related to plutonium particles, is making its way through the courts, and seven school districts in the Denver metro area have barred any official school trips to the refuge citing concerns of contamination.

Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo, who also sits on the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council that oversees soil testing, similarly assured the public about the refuge's safety and value.

"Just like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, more and more things will get introduced there," she told the Post. "You can already see the eagles in nests by Standley Lake. They fly over. It is just a different experience, compared with your run-of-the mill playground park."

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge opens to the public
The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge opens to the public Sept. 15 amid controversy and concerns.