Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
That was the message behind the federal government’s decision to crush six tons of ivory contraband at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal on Thursday.
The 15,000 acres due west of Denver International Airport has an unparalleled history first as a weapons manufacturing site and now as a wildlife sanctuary. That unlikely, interwoven history wasn’t lost on State Department officials determined to end the killing of elephants and the global terrorism that selling their tusks bankrolls.
“For the ivory crush to be conducted here speaks to the broader history of the Arsenal’s path from what it once was to what it is today,” said Kevin Friesdie, a spokesperson for the Arsenal, a former Army site now run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency turned the crushing of mammoth amounts of bony tusks into a ceremony for high-profile international conservationists and representatives of African countries. It was an opportunity for top State Department officials to not only talk the talk, but also demonstrate with brute force the U.S.’s commitment to ending the ivory trade, other poaching and the crime rings and terrorist groups they’re said to fund.
After the U.S. Army turned over the Arsenal to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the security and scale of the existing buildings made them an opportune location for the storage of confiscated materials from ivory to eagle feathers. Ivory is estimated to sell for as much as $2,000 per pound on the black market, bringing the value of the confiscated ivory stored at the Arsenal as high as $24 million.
“That’s quite a bit of value that the U.S. Government is basically saying ‘We don’t care, it’s got to be stopped,” said Rob Uttaro, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
The ivory crushed on Thursday represents thousands of elephants and 25 years of confiscation efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which reports “seizing it during undercover investigations of organized smuggling operations or confiscating it at the U.S. border.”
Peter Knights of Wild Aid, a group seeking to end the wildlife trade, was one of the handful of people who attended the invitation-only crushing ceremony. He said the event doesn’t just draw attention to skyrocketing concerns over elephant extinction, which experts fear may happen within the next 20 years.
“People dismiss this as a wildlife issue, but in reality there are human beings being murdered on both sides, as well,” he said.
The recent four-day siege of a shopping mall in Nairobi was just one of many terrorist attacks in which weapons purchased with smuggled ivory have been used.
Outside the Arsenal’s high-security gates, a group of twenty or so college students gathered with handmade signs to celebrate the event’s environmental and geopolitical importance.
“I find it very ironic,” said Jake Schuss, a student at the University of Denver’s Korbel School, of the decision to crush the ivory on a site that once served as a weapons factory.
The ever image conscious State Department killed two birds, so to speak, in picking the Arsenal as the venue for Thursday’s ceremony. Prior to closure in the early 1990s, the Defense Department used the site to produce everything from rocket propellant to nerve gas. Napalm and mustard gas were made there, and Sarin was stockpiled in one of its warehouses.
Part of the Arsenal’s land was also leased to Shell for the production of pesticides and a deep injection well dug to dispose of toxic waste. During the 1960s high pressure injections to the well caused a series of earthquakes in Denver, shattering windows and calling attention to the site’s potential environmental impacts.
Weapons manufacturing and pesticide production ultimately led to groundwater contamination, the Arsenal’s closure and the Environmental Protection Agency’s massive, roughly $2 billion cleanup and rehabilitation effort.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is now one of the nation’s largest urban wildlife preserves. Bison and deer roam its prairie grass. Birds migrate to the shores of its reservoir. And dozens of species have made it their home as housing tracts sprawl all around it.
There was a symmetry to Thursday’s ceremony which reduced the currency of crime and terrorism to dust. In its peculiar way, the Arsenal was an uncannily appropriate place to pay homage to elephants half a world away whose numbers are dwindling to finance violence and war.
“We can’t go back and change what’s been done,” said Cody Broncuda, also a student at DU. “But maybe we can overshadow that history with a symbol of saving a species. Otherwise what’s the point of all this?”
He turned to indicate the preserve, separated from the student group by a high, wired fence, where a vast flock of birds had just landed.
[Images courtesy USFWS Mountain Prairie]