The story of The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Natural Wildlife Refuge (or RMA for short) has been tumultuous to say the very least. This land has been embroiled in a battel between the US Military Complex, the State of Colorado, The Federal Government and the citizens of Colorado for almost twenty years. And I doubt the issues surrounding the RMA will disappear.

The best and most complete summary of events I found it the report titled “The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge: On a Rocky Road to Creating a Community Asset” Published by the Pacific McGeorge School of Law and found in full here in a PDF.

I took the time and read all 32 pages of dense, citation laden text so you don’t have to. I must say that I got quite the education. This refuge is the largest in the United States coming in at an impressive12,500 acres. Together, let’s look back in the history of the RMA.

Native Americans were the first to inhabit the land of the RMA, and were later relocated to allow for farmers to be enticed to come in and farm for the growing communities. In the 1880’s this land was mostly farms. The US Military searched for the perfect place to develop its deadly weapons. Colorado fit the bill being too far from either coast to avoid a sea attack, and far from a large population. And in 1942 the US Army took 20,000 acres of the land by eminent domain. In 1952 the site was later leased by Shell Chemical to produce herbicides and insecticides. Though the Army stopped manufacturing in 1969 Shell continued manufacturing until 1982.


RMA South Gate

This is a photo of the south entrance, circa 1960 By U.S. Army – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID hhh.co0168.


Environmentally speaking, all of this less than awesome use of the land left things a mess. In 1984 the Army began investigating the site to determine how much contamination there was. Well, let’s just say there was a lot. So, in 1987 the site was placed on something called the National Priorities List or NPL. This is a listing of the most contaminated sites in the US. Not a great list to be on, but here we were.  Because there was a roost of bald eagles found on the site in 1986 the Federal Government wanted to further protect this site, and did so by passing the RMANWR Act in 1992. That long acronym is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act. (whew!)


This is an aerial view of the south plant circa 1970RMA South Plant

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID hhh.co0168.


Now, a lot of stuff happened and a lot of legal battles were fought over this land. An entire fifteen pages or the report I mentioned earlier is dedicated to the back and forth between all interested parties. And I will just tell you that it was a mess. The citizens of Colorado really had to fight, and fight more, to have a say in what went on at the RMA. Around $2.1 billion went into the cleanup and restoration.

A good example of the conflict can be seen right on the signs. 1998 the Site Specific Advisory Board had issues with the removal of the word arsenal, the report noted,

“The SSAB was concerned that this obscured the true nature of the site as a

hazardous waste site and was purposefully done to minimize

public awareness of the contamination and history of the site. ”

The SSAB appealed to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. And won. That is why the word Arsenal must stay attached to the RMA’s name.

RMA Colorado

It is hard to believe that such a beautiful place has been through such hard times. Perhaps that is the hallmark of something wonderful, like a diamond, it must go through a little something to come out brilliant.

Now, you can go to the RMA and see black-tailed prairie dogs, bison, black-footed ferret, mule deer,

raccoon and white-tailed deer among the mammals that call the Arsenal home.

The prairie has been replanted with Prickly Poppy, Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, Blue Grama and Sideoats Grama.

The views are incredible with the Denver skyline in the distance reminding you that you are truly only moments from the city and yet in a completely different world.

Ready to visit the Refuge and take a look yourself? There is a lot of information is available for visitors on their website. Here is a quick overview from their site.

Visiting the Refuge is FREE.  The Refuge is open sunrise to sunset seven days a week and is open most federal holidays (closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day).

The Visitor Center is open WRMA Stapletonednesdays – Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (closed on all federal holidays).

Visit the black-footed ferret exhibit located a few steps away from the Visitor Center back patio.







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Tricia Houston

Owner, Lending Maven Mortgage

Colorado native and Stapleton resident