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Nature park planned for urban Denver neighborhood

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 1, 2014 at 9:01 am •  Published: June 1, 2014

DENVER (AP) — The uninitiated might see only the empty, miniature vodka bottles and ghostly plastic shopping bags littering a vacant lot in northeast Denver. Wildlife biologist Stacie Gilmore's trained eyes scan a pool of drainage water and pick out red-winged blackbirds hiding in the cattails.

Gilmore looks to the future as she surveys the 5½-acre plot that her nonprofit, Environmental Learning for Kids, plans to open next year as a grassland park and nature center in a low-income, urban neighborhood called Montbello. Her partners include the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land and state groups like Great Outdoors Colorado that want to connect city dwellers with nature.

Gilmore's organization, known as ELK, is particularly concerned with serving blacks and Hispanics who many worry are cut off from the opportunities of nature.

Gilmore envisions planting prairie grasses and native trees on the lot, now bookended by a liquor store and car wash. Adrian Benepe, a Trust for Public Land senior vice president, says it's the kind of place where planners might otherwise have built high-density, high-rise housing for which it was zoned.

Benepe says that thinking is changing. Children need space to exercise. Planners are emphasizing science education, including the kinds of hands-on instruction in biology and botany natural classrooms can offer. Those who want to do something about climate change realize small urban forests store carbon.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, once home to military chemical weapons and agricultural pesticides manufacturing, is just a mile down the road. A chain link fence separates Montbello from the 15,000-acre refuge that was cleaned up under the Superfund program and opened to the public a few years ago.

Gilmore plans to develop the lot and build a gate to the arsenal. She is seeking about $1 million from a pool of $27.4 million created when the U.S. Army and Shell settled a lawsuit filed by the state of Colorado over natural areas damaged by hazardous arsenal activities. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who as Colorado's attorney general from 1999 to 2004 worked to obtain compensation for environmental damage at the arsenal, said using some of that money for Montbello is "fitting and proper."

Gilmore also is seeking other sources for the prairie-in-the-city project whose total cost she estimates at just over $5 million to secure, restore and develop the plot and ensure an operating budget for at least three years.

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