United States

The project team is curious about flora and fauna that flourish in unexpected places: the nature of surprise. The American side of our research is especially concerned with the enigmatic role of wild animals living on weapons manufacturing sites, defence reservations and military training lands that often function as de facto reserves. The research emphasizes the role of an opportunistic and adaptable natural world as an antidote to the traditional emphasis on (non-human) nature as victim of human activities. It explores the natural world’s adaptability and opportunistic qualities rather than its fragility and vulnerability. To quote from an article about a former atomic weapons research site on the coast of eastern England in a recent issue of the magazine of the National Trust (Spring 2007): ‘Where humans see a broken fence, an abandoned trough and collapsed roof, a linnet, hare and barn owl see a look-out post, bath and front door.’ Where is nature? And where is nature supposed to be? This research engages with themes such as unofficial nature versus the nature that is officially protected in wildlife refuges and national parks. It grapples with concepts such as tainted nature, dismissible nature, indefatigable nature and enigmatic nature. Is nature’s survival sometimes as shocking as nature’s extermination?

The Principal Investigator (PI) will build on and extend a major research interest of the late 1980s and early 1990s: nuclear landscapes of the American West. (Peter Coates, ‘Project Chariot: Alaskan Roots of Environmentalism,’  Alaska History, 4/2 (Fall 1989): 1-3; ‘Amchitka, Alaska: Toward the Bio-Biography of an Island,’ Environmental History 1/4 (October 1996): 20-45.) His research (‘The Nature of the Unexpected: Paradoxical Wildlife Reserves in the western United States’) focuses on two sites near Denver, Colorado - the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Rocky Mountain Arsenal (10 miles northeast of Denver), which extends across 17,000 acres, produced a bevy of chemical weaponry between 1942 and 1982 (private companies also leased parts of the site to manufacture pesticides). Rocky Flats (16 miles northwest of Denver; 400-acre core plant, 6,000-acre buffer zone) manufactured plutonium triggers between 1952 and 1992. The ecological value of these highly toxic sites became increasingly apparent during the 1980s. For beyond their heavily polluted and relatively small cores, these sites were protected from the customary processes of economic development and population growth that transformed the natural world elsewhere in Colorado. In the early 1990s, Denver’s Urban Design Forum described Rocky Mountain Arsenal as ‘the nation’s most ironic nature park.’ (At the same time, the place of the displaced, pre-military human past within this re-naturing process - the area was homesteaded in the 1880s - remains unclear.) An ambitious clean-up and remediation project was launched at Rocky Mountain in 1996 and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (authorized by Congress in 1992) was officially designated in 2004 under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A clean-up has also been conducted at Rocky Flats and 4,000 acres of the site became the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in July 2007.

This American study meshes with the project’s European work on access and authority, settlement and movement,  and militarized lands as hospitable habitats for fauna and flora, serving as an additional point of comparative reference.