A Seedy Friend

I met Paul Kilburn at the turn-off into the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, decommissioned a few years before. Paul and his volunteers had permission to collect native seeds from the buffer zone around the facility that had been created to provide both a security barrier from outside intrusion and physical separation from what was going on within.

Rocky Flats is northwest of Denver on an elevated bench of land just in front of the Rocky Mountain foothills, equally distant between Boulder to the north and Golden to the south. Beginning in 1952, the government constructed a facility to manufacture plutonium pits, a critical component (pun intended) of nuclear weapons. The facility represented jobs, local prosperity and national defense. In 1989 the plant was shut down by the EPA and FBI due to environmental problems, and ceased operation permanently in 1992 when George H. W. Bush canceled the W-88 Trident Warhead Program.

I was the state of Colorado’s representative for the Rocky Flats regulation and closure for a few years, and was extremely interested in the post-closure fate of the site. As part of the decommissioning process, local governments, citizens and interest groups had collaborated on what to do with the nearly 10,000-acre site. Ultimately, a decision was made to keep it empty of development as a national wildlife refuge.

The cleanup was focused primarily on the operating parts of the site, the industrial area, where manufacturing was performed and materials and wastes were stored and managed. This roughly one square-mile area was permanently off-limits, but the surrounding eight square-miles had mostly been a buffer zone, allowed to stay in a natural state, closed even to grazing. As a result, those areas were largely free of contamination and represented some of the least disturbed native vegetation in the vicinity of the metro-Denver area.  

Paul was a conservation botanist, expert in revegetation and natural ecosystems. At the time we met, Rocky Flats was in the process of purchasing grass seed for revegetation, but Paul was concerned that the commercial seed was devoid of the natural local variety of xeric tallgrass vegetation and would revegetate poorly. The biome represented at Rocky Flats and that toe of the foothills bench was somewhat unique, mirrored only by similar biomes in states far to the east. Paul’s idea was to collect the seeds from undisturbed vegetation on and around Rocky Flats to mix in with the commercial seed and achieve a more natural post-revegetation ecosystem. The site reclamation team agreed and Paul’s volunteers were allowed to proceed.

Seeing the site empty was eerie after being involved with the scores of industrial and office buildings just a few years before. The central roadways were still functional. But the dirt tracks across the buffer zone were beginning to be rough and overgrown. Earthen structures covered the places where basements were buried and landfills or ponds had been. Paul, showed us how the buffer vegetation was this incredible mix of different plants — forbs and grasses — and demonstrated which were the best to collect and to avoid. We found some native milkweed that was much prized.

From the site, the foothills offer a dramatic backdrop to the west and north-south along the front range, and the plain that Denver occupies is visible to the east. Just before the eastern horizon, you could see the terminal “tents” at Denver International Airport and the white radar globes like giant golf balls at Buckley Air Force Base. Under your feet, there is a tangled mish-mash of grasses, forbs (many flowering) and bugs, scattered gravel and rocks (the formation’s namesake).

annually for nearly ten years, Paul brought it all together and got us to do something for the future — something that would help to offset the spectre of radiation, pollution and nuclear war that the site had represented.        

Paul Kilburn died last week. I believe his legacy rests out on the prairie at Rocky Flats and all those other places where he helped make a better future Earth.  

To plant a tree in memory of Paul Dayton Kilburn, please visit the Malesich and Shirey Funeral Home Tribute Store.

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