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From Blighted to Beautiful

Five fabulous makeovers for Mother Earth.

Crissy Field in San Francisco, image
Photo caption
When the National Park Service took over Crissy Field in 1994 they declared it "a concrete wasteland." Today, it's a gorgeous recreation area.


People used to line up in their trucks at the edge of San Francisco Bay to heave out their moldy and gutted sofas, rusty paint cans, amputated chairs—or whatever detritus crammed their basements and garages. Now people come to the same spot to run, fly kites, walk their dogs—often without a clue that Berkeley’s César Chávez Park used to be the city dump.

Homo sapiens has managed to make more major changes to the earth than any other species, and not always for the better. Human hands have turned whole landscapes into garbage dumps, mining wastelands, and industrial slums—ugly blots on the landscape. The good news is that humans are capable of correcting mistakes, and in at least a few cases have actually turned the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse.

We went looking for ecological transformations and are happy to report that they are out there, with more on the way. In San Francisco’s Presidio, for example, weed-choked Crissy Field is being restored to wetlands where people can walk, bike, and run in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course the concept of environmental transmutation is not altogether new. Ninety-five years ago, Jennie Foster Butchart began planting roses and begonias and dahlias in a scarred and scraped-out limestone quarry on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. The Butchart Gardens have long been one of the area’s major tourist draws.

Restoration is the buzzword in the West these days; all sorts of organizations are discovering the considerable benefits of turning eyesores into oases, dross into gold. Here are five examples.

THE OLD WORKS GOLF COURSE Anaconda, Montana On your second shot on the sixth hole of the Old Works Golf Course, in Anaconda, Montana, you’ll need to play through two tall heaps of black slag—the by-product of copper smelting—on either side of the fairway. The sixth is just one of the course holes that uses remnants of the area’s past. This Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in mountainous southwestern Montana was once the site of the nation’s largest copper smelter, owned by Marcus "Copper King" Daly and his powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM).

In 1883 Daly founded the town of Anaconda, 26 miles west of his huge copper mines in Butte, as a place to build his copper smelters. Anaconda soon became a company town, one that would pump out copper products for almost a century. Then in 1970, a new government in Chile nationalized that nation’s copper mines. At the same time, new air pollution standards were put into place in the United States. ACM began divesting itself of Montana holdings, and was purchased by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in 1977. In 1980 doors were closed on the last copper smelter in Anaconda.

Three years later the area became a Superfund site, designated for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency. To qualify as a Superfund site, the ground had to be ruined. The Old Works certainly was—with 220 acres piled high with mine tailings collected since the 1800s. And locals had long used the area as a dump. City leaders saw an opportunity to do something creative. ARCO spent $20 million to build a golf course in the area, and brought in Jack Nicklaus to design it.

When he saw the area, Nicklaus could hardly help but notice endless black sand-like piles of slag. It was tested and found safe, so Nicklaus used the slag for all the course’s bunkers, or sandtraps—a boon since the heavier slag is more forgiving than its bleached counterparts. He also designed the course around many of the smelter’s remnants—massive stone furnace walls line some of the fairways. When the 7,705-yard, 250-acre, par-72 course opened in the spring of 1997, Golf Magazinecalled it the most "original new course of the decade." Fittingly, the course’s 18th hole is called "Anode," for the smelter’s final product, the copper anode bar.

To contact the Old Works call (406) 563-5827, or see For the Anaconda Chamber of Commerce, call (406) 563-2400.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARSENAL Commerce City, Colorado During the summer of 1942, half a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government purchased 17,000 acres of farmland just 10 miles outside of Denver, far from any war-threatened coastline. Just six months later, the skyline outside of Denver was filled with 300 buildings that would produce some of the deadliest products of war: mustard gas, white phosphorus, napalm.

According to the army, in 1945 U.S. forces dropped more than 1,500 tons of napalm bombs—all produced at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA)—on Tokyo. After WWII, the arsenal kept cranking out munitions in case the Cold War turned hot, and for use in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. At the same time, the army leased its Colorado facilities to companies, including Shell Chemical Company, to foster economic growth in the area. (Shell produced pesticides on-site from 1952 until 1982.) All the while, and despite the fact that the army had put efforts into cleanup programs, surrounding communites were becoming fearful of groundwater contamination. In the 1970s, with no war to justify full production and new federal environmental legislation signed into law, the army, Shell, and the EPA began designing plans to clean up the RMA.

When the arsenal was built, the military left a buffer zone of untouched land around the main production facilities for security and to protect the local population. The zone managed to preserve a large section of the Denver region’s prairie environment. In 1986, an army contractor was gazing high into the tall tops of cottonwood trees around the arsenal. He noticed, to his surprise, the roost of a pair of bald eagles, at the time an endangered species. Soon after, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service logged nearly 300 species of wildlife, including deer, prairie dogs, songbirds, and owls, living on grasslands, along lakes and streams, and in areas lined with hackberry and box elder on the RMA. All of these creatures coexisted with the nearby smokestacks and abandoned buildings and hazardous waste landfill.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service logged nearly 300 wildlife species living on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

In 1992 Congress passed the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act, which, when cleanup is finished, will transform what was once the site of the nation’s largest chemical weapons manufacturing plant into one of the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuges.

According to the office in charge of the cleanup, by 2011 there should be little, if any, trace of the jumble of smokestacks and buildings that have become a standard part of the Denver skyline. All that should remain is a visitor center and wide open prairie lands, along with bald eagles and deer and coyotes.

Today at the RMA, visitors can take history and wildlife tours and watch for wintering bald eagles. Nature programs are planned for school and youth groups, and special events are offered year-round. Only about 25 percent of the arsenal land was contaminated but access to all activities is carefully controlled—many of the public programs are held in the "buffer zone" around the arsenal. Tour and event reservations are required. For more information see or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver at (303) 289-0232.

ARCATA MARSH AND WILDLIFE SANCTUARY Arcata, California On any given day, whether the sun is blazing or the skies are gray and the wind is howling, it’s common to find birders scanning the grassy uplands, freshwater ponds, brackish waters, tidal sloughs, and mudflats of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary on Northern California’s Humboldt Bay. The birders search for ruddy ducks, ospreys, black-crowned night herons, marsh hawks, and many others. More than 200 resident and seasonal bird species frequent this major stopover on the Pacific Flyway.

And although they surely don’t know it, those birds have a clean, healthy stopover because the locals flush their toilets. The Arcata Marsh exists because the city of Arcata and some innovative professors at California State University-Humboldt began a pilot project to clean wastewater using wetlands.

Over the last 30 years, this bayshore area has been littered with the remnants of two lumber mills, a city dump, and cow pastures. Then in the mid-1970s, while fisheries professor George Allen was working on a variety of wastewater aquaculture projects, the state adopted stringent policies on discharging wastewater into bays and estuaries. Spurning the plan to build a new plant with a pipeline across the bay to discharge sewage into the ocean, the city rallied behind Allen and Professor Bob Gearheart, who both believed that wetlands and their associated microorganisms could transform wastewater into nutrients that would support pond life. A series of wetlands was built along the shore, near the existing water treatment plant. To enhance the environment near the plant, the city, with funding from the California Coastal Conservancy, restored the surrounding area. Today, nearly 15 years after the wastewater project was completed, similar marshland treatment systems can be found around the nation, and the Wildlife Sanctuary has been expanded to cover 154 acres.

In those acres, visitors can meander down trails past Mount Trashmore, a sanitary-landfill-turned-grassy-hill with views across the bay toward the city of Eureka; brackish Klopp Lake, which once collected the landfill’s leachings and is now home to roosting shorebirds; the George Allen Marsh, built in place of an abandoned log storage area; and Butcher’s Slough, a restored estuary. For more information, stop into the marsh interpretive center or call (707) 826-2359.

GRANVILLE ISLAND Vancouver, British Columbia Gloria Loree, manager of programming for Granville Island, doesn’t mince words. "Granville Island was an industrial eyesore," she says. Actually, before it was covered by factories, the island was just a faint sandbar that came and went with the tides in a Vancouver waterway. Then, with a growing economy and demand for war matériel during World War I, the federal government built a 35-acre island beneath the Granville Street Bridge and leased space to industrial tenants.

The first tenant put up a corrugated tin building at the west end of the island, setting the style for the factories and slaughterhouses to come. In the island’s heyday, nearly 1,200 workers were pounding and blasting and cranking out nails, cement, wood products, and meat products. Then the Depression shut down most of the factories, and a shantytown emerged on the island. By the end of the 1950s, only a few Granville factories were still in business.

In the early 1970s, Ron Basford, Canada’s minister of urban affairs, saw potential in Granville and hired managers, bankers, and architects to plot the island’s future. The group came up with a plan to combine visual and art spaces with educational facilities, shops, and some remaining industry. To attract people they created a public market.

Around the island, actors study lines while boat makers shape canoes, children fly down slides, and shoppers throng the market.

Today, Granville Island Public Market teems with shoppers picking out fresh tomatoes, panini sandwiches, flavored butters, and baskets of cherries. Beyond the market is a restaurant housed in a building made of corrugated tin, which remains the building material of choice. "Everything here is from an industrial time, it’s just that we’ve added fruits and vegetables rather than ropes and ladders," Loree says. Many of the island’s present tenants are housed in buildings painted to mimic their original colors: bright red, turquoise, yellow. At the other end of the island is the Granville Island Hotel, which is corrugated on the outside, but inside has 56 fanciful rooms. Next door is The Mound, a grassy park built over old road debris.

Around the island, actors perform in plays while boat makers shape canoes. Students study at the Emily Carr Institute for Art and Design while workers at Ocean Cement load trucks and head out to construction sites. This year Granville Island is celebrating its 20th anniversary. For more information call (604) 666-5784, or see

CESAR CHAVEZ PARK Berkeley, California At the turn of the last century, the city of Berkeley was in need of a place to put its trash. It chose San Francisco Bay. With a grant from the state, the city began diking and filling its waterfront in 1913. By the mid-1970s, great heaps of trash were piled along the bay shore and the air was thick with scavenging seagulls. Locals were waiting in long lines to pay $2 and empty their trunks, while bulldozers scraped at the piles to make room for more.

The dump was getting full, and the city was going to have to do something about it. In 1976 the city council adopted a resolution that would specify "the landfill area to be developed as North Waterfront Park." Seven years later, in 1983, the dump was finally closed, and the transformation began. Engineers covered the landfill with two feet of clean soil, then one foot of compacted clay (to prevent erosion and water seeping into the fill), then another foot of top soil. In 1988 the city installed a system of pipes underground to collect the landfill gases, transport them to a "flare station," and burn them off.

By 1994, grass had grown across the hills and fields of North Waterfront Park, firs lined the drive out to the circular parking lot at water’s edge, and the city renamed the area César Chávez Park in honor of the labor leader. Today the park is well known as the best kite-flying spot around (a championship kite-flying competition is held there yearly); a great place for a walk or run or skate, as a 1.5-mile paved trail loops the park along the water’s edge; and a great place for dogs to work off some of their boundless energy (the park just became an official "dog park") chasing sparrows and butterflies over the green-grass hills that rise to wide views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate to the west.

For more information call the Parks and Waterfront Department at (510) 644-6376.

Photos by Michael Mauro, Frank S. Balthis, Robert Soncin Gerometta/Photo 20-20 and courtesy of the CMHC and Berkeley Historical Society


This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.