What's historic? What's worth preserving?

  Dear HCN,

Hooray for Tom Casey who wants to preserve the nuclear power plant structures west of Olympia, Wash., according to HCN's Heard Around the West column Oct. 16. They are an honest representation of our cultural heritage, and, like charming 1800s brick buildings, their presence on the landscape tells us, over time, just where we've been and what we've done.

In Denver, metro Denver preservationists advocate leaving the haunting chemical manufacturing plants and six-story concrete nerve-gas plant standing on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The plants are the reason the 27-square-mile place was set aside to serve World War II, then the Korean, Vietnam and Cold wars. It's also why the Army and Shell Chemical are engaged in a multibillion-dollar cleanup and, ironically, why the arsenal is now home to hundreds of deer and a large complement of prairie birds and wildlife: 50 years of urban development drove them in.

Demolition of such complex structures is a dubious expense, while their cultural value, like their physical presence, is monumental. For Olympia's nuclear plants and the arsenal's chemical plants, U.S. environmental law and the International Chemical Weapons Treaty, respectively, will probably dictate that we spend the millions to demolish these landmark behemoths of war. That's convenient for the many whose rather simplistic wish is to return the land to its "natural" state.

Prior to World War II, the arsenal land was farms and communities; before that it was buffalo range; before that it was woolly mammoths; before that dinosaurs and an inland sea, and before that ... ? Which "natural state" do we restore it to? After the Superfund cleanup, the refuge will be "kind of natural' - a 17,000-acre fenced zoo of man's design, fashioned roughly, hardly completely, on the romanticized era prior to European settlement. But the arsenal will retain the lakes and ditches built for irrigation and the imported plant species because they aid the wildlife (and please the visitors). But not those horrid old chemical plants. We're losing one heck of a history lesson.

Chris Ford

Denver, Colorado

Chris Ford is on the board of the Urban Design Forum, which serves metropolitan Denver. She can be reached at 303/573-5551.

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