Denver Parks & Rec is tripling the amount of land it manages at DIA

Scott Gilmore used to sneak into Rocky Mountain Arsenal back when it was one of the most polluted patches of land in the country. He navigated barbed wire and warning signs in the 1980s to enter the 17,000-acre Superfund site and snap photographs of the bald eagles and hawks roosting there.

“It gave me a connection to the outdoors that a lot of people of color or marginalized communities do not get,” said Gilmore, who identifies as Black and Japanese, and was raised and still lives in northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. The historically Black area borders Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which in 2004 was named a national wildlife refuge after an extensive cleanup. The neighborhood also sits less than 10 miles from Denver International Airport.

Gilmore has a full-circle perspective when he looks at the refuge’s evolution. A former wildlife photographer and wildlife biologist with a degree from Colorado State University, he’s now the deputy executive director of Denver Parks & Recreation. At 58 years old, he’s spent his adult life connecting and protecting public lands.

The latest project for the city department expands that mission. Denver Parks & Recreation has tripled the amount of open space it manages for Denver International Airport, increasing it from 198 acres to 580. That instantly made First Creek at DEN Open Space — as the new park is being called — the biggest park that City and County of Denver manages, beating out the 320-acre City Park just east of downtown Denver.

Parts of it are open now, with more coming online as new trails open in the coming months, and trails in the design phase make it through approvals and funding requests. The space adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal is accessible from the parking lot just west of 56th and Peña, north of the parking lot, Gilmore said.

“Those (new) areas are, in part, going to continue the regional trail system,” said Gilmore, who’s hoping for millions of dollars in grants to build out the rest of the trails. “The area just south of Green Valley Ranch Blvd does have a new trail that was constructed just recently.”

Management of the parcel, which took effect Jan. 14, is not as straightforward as it may seem for a strip of land that’s considered a buffer zone between RMA National Wildlife Refuge and the constant traffic of Peña Boulevard, which routes drivers to and from DIA.

“This area includes First Creek and Second Creek, two waterways home to diverse habitats that support a wide range of wildlife species including nesting bald eagles,” according to a DIA statement. Denver Parks & Rec will work on carbon sequestration (capturing and storing carbon dioxide), soil health, erosion control, noxious weed control, grassland restoration, and maintenance of DIA’s multi-use trail system.

“Open space is so important for our wellbeing to recharge, exercise and experience the environmental benefits,” said Stacie Gilmore, City Councilwoman District 11, and Gilmore’s wife, in a statement. She, too, is a wildlife biologist committed to bringing people of color and kids from low-income families into the outdoors world. “The significant expansion … creates connections to our trail system and the (RMA) National Wildlife Refuge for communities that have been historically forgotten or excluded from the natural world.”

Also in store: an expanded bison habitat that will creep east on existing DIA land. Known for its growing bison herd, RMA National Wildlife Refuge is also a bird-watching haven and home to burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, beavers, hawks and deer, among many others. Some of these animals, whether native to the refuge or released there, have begun migrating into DIA’s open space, Gilmore said.

The 580 acres is not traditionally park-like, but that’s only because parks are often thought of as Euro-centric grounds with classical fountains and sprawling green turf. Those happen to be unsustainable amid rapid climate change, Gilmore said, particularly in Denver’s semi-arid desert ecosystem. This new land contains “some of the most intact remnant parcels of historic prairie land that exist in Denver today,” and will be further restored to a time before white settlers and Denver residents littered the city with non-native trees and plants.

The land expansion opens the possibility of connecting the parks with the RTD’s A Line Light Rail stop at 56th Avenue and Tower Road, where people could hike or rent a bike to get into the area. Gilmore would like to see a diverse set of people using it.

“To be part of creating this is pretty meaningful for my wife and I, who used to walk our dogs along the old Buckley Road,” Gilmore said. “With mental-health stresses and how mean people are these days — they’re mean! — we’re working hard to offer these areas where people can decompress and unwind and get fresh air.

“When I’m out walking down a trail, and I see a Hispanic or Black person with their family who maybe wasn’t always able to experience the outdoors, that’s what it’s all about,” he added.

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