Posted by: Mickey Goodman | October 18, 2011

Traveling Green in Denver

A Bird's Eye View of Denver

When I think of eco-trips, exotic experiences come to mind: polar bears hitching rides on melting ice floes. Blue-footed boobies posing for photos in The Galapagos. Exotic birds preening their feathers in rain forests of South America. So I was a bit taken back when an uber-environmentalist and animal lover asked me to join her on an eco-trip to Denver.

“An eco-trip to the largest city in Colorado?” I asked.

She bubbled with enthusiasm. “We’ll learn how elephant poop and human waste will soon supply power to the new Asian Tropics exhibit at Denver Zoo (I wasn’t sure whether to gag or grin), visit a refuge for exotic carnivores once on the verge of being euthanized, and drive among a herd of buffalo grazing on land known that was once the largest environmental cleanup project in the history of the U.S.

How could I resist?

Denver Goes Green

The green movement in Denver began in earnest in 2005 when Mayor John Hickenlooper signed the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement and committed the city to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 percent per capita by 2012. As a result, the city has become a national leader in the green movement.

On 16th Street — a one-third-mile stretch of chic hotels, restaurants and shops — there’s nary a car in sight. Instead, people walk or ride the free gas-powered MallRide from Union Station to the 16th Avenue/Broadway intersection. Three stations along the route provide connections to other RTD buses and light rail. The secret for success: the seven counties worked together to create a network of light rail that spans 720 miles.

The leafy city street is a Mecca for all who visit Denver, primarily because of the beautiful landscaping and eclectic public art, dictated by a 1988 law stating that every project over $1 million must set aside one percent of space for public art. Sixteenth Street is also an auditory treat. At intervals along the sidewalk, old pianos painted by local artists encourage musicians, instrumentalists and singers to entertain, or just amuse themselves. The good ones draw an appreciative crowd.

Other green efforts in this eco-minded city include earmarking the proceeds from legalized gambling for historic preservation – a successful effort to save historic structures, rather than hauling them piece by piece to land fills. Hotels and restaurants conserve water and feature locally-grown foods, and the once deserted and decaying buildings in the LoDo district have been re-purposed to create a lively night scene where more than 100 different local brands of beer are sold nightly.

On Being a Green Tourist

The Asian Tropics Opening Early 2012

Our agenda began with a hard hat tour of the Denver Zoo’s new 10-acre, five-habitat Asian Tropics exhibit now under construction. Soon it will be powered by the odorless gasification of elephant poop and human garbage, a venture that will convert 90 percent of the zoo’s waste stream into energy and save the facility $150,000.

For its efforts, the attraction was just named “the greenest zoo in the country” by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and officials are hoping it will become the first in America to receive Platinum or Gold level LEED certification.

I admit that in its current stage of development, it’s difficult to envision the completed Asian Tropics that will house the largest bull elephant enclosure in the nation, in addition to rhinos and tapirs. Best of all, mere humans will be able to view the entire panorama via a boardwalk which eliminates barriers between visitors and the animals. Add in gibbons swinging from habitat to habitat directly overhead, and there’s plenty to convince me to return with my eco-minded, peace-sign wearing grandchildren.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

Next on our list was the Wild Animal Sanctuary located in Keenesburg, just 30-miles from Denver, a seemingly odd place for rescued lions, tigers and bears (oh my!), wolves and other large carnivores that were once cruelly confined in small cages. But it’s one of those oddities that works.

As we walk along the above-ground ramp that separates two-legged animals from four, wolves howl at the coming dusk from atop a mound of earth, while the lions and tigers pay little attention. It’s a bit surreal. From our perch, we can see “families” of big cats on one side and bears napping in the warm sunlight on the other.

The facility is the brainchild of founder, then 19-year old Pat Craig, who was so horrified to witness old, healthy animals at the zoo euthanized because there was no where for them to “retire,” he took matters into his own hands. I can only imagine the conversation with his parents when he proposed turning the family farmlands outside Boulder into a wild life sanctuary.

But convince them he did. During his first month in operation, Craig received 300 letters from zoos across the country pleading with him to take their animals at his privately owned and funded 501(c)3 facility. The need was so great that the number of animals soon outstripped the acreage that would allow them freedom to roam, so the sanctuary moved to its present 720-acre home (much of it donated). Here, 290 animals live within large barriers that separate warring species from one another.

Earlier this year, the sanctuary received an urgent plea asking how many of the 25 lions rescued from outlawed Bolivian circuses they would be willing to take. Their immediate answer: “We’ll take them all.” Then came the scramble to ready a new 15,000 sq. ft. biosphere-like building on 80-acres of the refuge.

Why So Many Animals in Need?

His Own Swimming Pond

Surprisingly, a high percentage of rescued animals don’t come from zoos, circuses or carnivals, but from private citizens who purchase them on the black market, making the illicit exotic animal trade one of the largest sources of illegal profits in the world today. In the U.S., tigers are so popular that more are privately owned in Texas alone than remain in the wild worldwide.

But what to do when that adorable cub becomes an angry 450-pound adult with gigantic teeth and claws? The consequences are not pretty. Since they acquire the beasts illegally, owners can’t simply call animal control to take them away. So with few options, they often set them free in remote areas where they either die from hunger or terrorize neighborhoods where they sense they’ll find food.

No visit to Denver is complete without a trip to the Denver Museum of Natural History where a 100-kilowatt solar array on the roof powers the museum. The accomplishment was so impressive that President Barak Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law from the rooftop. It is located in City Park where the exact spot that gives the Mile High City its name is clearly marked.

Exhibits inside the museum also stress ecology and health. In the Exploreum, we used individual data cards to check our heart rates, gait, pulse and blood pressure. A computer projected what we’d look like at age 70 if we didn’t use sun screen – not a pretty site. The IMAX theater, planetarium and an enormous array of artifacts attract locals and visitors alike.

Lagniappe (Extra Special Places to Visit):

Buffalo at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge

  • The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge htto//www.rockymountainarsenal.fws.gov/, the largest environmental cleanup project in the history of the planet has transformed a former WWII weapons manufacturing facility into the only urban wildlife refuge in America, home to 330 species, including buffalo, bald eagles and deer. (They call the thousands of prairie dogs that nibble on native plants “pests;” we called them adorable!)
  • The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Visitor Center http://www.nrel.gov/visitors_center/, the largest research facility for renewable energy in the U.S.
  • The National Center for Atmospheric Research www.ncar.ucar.edu/ is the largest of its kind in the nation and uses interactive exhibits to explain a variety of atmospheric phenomenon from global warming to tornados.
  • B-cycles (bicycles) www.Denverbcycle.com which can be rented for 24-hours or more, help eliminate the need for cars in the city. Residents and tourists can peddle to the B-station nearest their destination to check bikes out and in. When they exit, they simply hop on another and off they go.
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