ESTABLISHING a spacious urban wildlife refuge outside a major metropolis may be a novel idea. If the area is a one-time chemical weapons and deadly herbicide manufacturing plant, that makes it a bizarre idea. And if it is one of the most contaminated sites in America, then you have nothing less than the scenario being played out at Denver's Rocky Mountain Arsenal."This has been like dancing with the devil; it has presented some of the strangest sets of circumstances that I have ever been involved with," says Tom Dougherty, regional executive for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the prime movers in turning one of the nation's foremost Superfund cleanup sites into a 17,000-acre urban wildlife refuge. "There are more and more people developing interests in watchable wildlife and this presents the greatest, if not the only opportunity for an urban wildlife re fuge of this size and quality next to a major metropolitan area in the United States," Mr. Dougherty explains. Pete Gober, coordinator of the arsenal's US Fish and Wildlife Service operations, says, "There is something to be said here about the importance of wildlife, but also something very important about environmental ignorance that I hope is passed on to people ... there are consequences to environmental ignorance." On Sept. 9, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado, chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Installations, joined Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts, chair of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife, to hear comments on legislation that would convert the arsenal into a national urban wildlife refuge. Ms. Schroeder, who has had a longtime interest in the arsenal, introduced a refuge bill earlier this year and a second, similar proposal was later introduced by freshman Rep. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado, whose district encompasses the arsenal. The Schroeder bill would salvage all 17,000 acres of the arsenal for a wildlife refuge, while Allard's bill would set aside over 800 acres for a commercial strip along the arsenal's western border with Commerce City, an economically depressed Denver suburb. "It's almost like having our own Serengeti," Schroeder observed in comparing the proposed wildlife refuge to the famed Tanzanian game preserve. Studds suggested that conversion proponents may be setting "something of a precedent" with such a unique plan. "This is a journey whose length would have been inconceivable a few years ago," the Massachusetts lawmaker said. Schroeder joined Studds in calling for a review of US military bases marked for closure to see whether similar refuges could be developed elsewhere. "How this [refuge] is going to work while the arsenal is being cleaned up, no one really knows," says Polly Reetz, chair of the conservation committee of the Denver Audubon Society. "We got involved three years ago when we scheduled some tours for our members. Some of them said, 'This is really exciting. IT has been more than 20 years since chemical weapons were produced at the arsenal. A government at war hurriedly approved their production in 1942, but no one suspected those chemicals would come back to haunt them, creating, among other things, the most contaminated square mile in America. The arsenal's nightmarish legacy was compounded by operations of Shell Oil Company, which leased land and plant facilities for 30 years, producing herbicides and pesticides, including now banned and highly toxic aldrin and dieldrin, dumping wastes on site. Shell shares cleanup costs with the government, a tab which could cost Shell anywhere from $350 to $750 million. (A formula agreed to by the Army and Shell after a legal battle that began in 1983 has the two sharing costs on a 50-50 basis up to $500 million, and the army paying a higher percentage for costs above $500 million.) Shell spokesman Ted Anderson discussed the costly arsenal headache from Houston: "The state of the art at that time was to put toxic wastes into basins. As we have learned in subsequent years, there were problems in doing it the old-fashioned way." Shell was "following orders from the Army; we were a tenant and they told us how to do it," Anderson says. The "innocent tenant" claim was rejected in court, however, and the company's 250 insurance agencies were held blameless for Shell's arsenal contaminatio n when a California judge ruled that the company's arsenal activity was no 30-year accident. The Army is now coordinating a $2 billion cleanup operation, disposing of both liquid and solid wastes. The government has spent $350 million to date, for a cleanup effort that will take another 30 years, Army officials estimate. The cleanup operation would be largely ignored if it were not for the "tenants" who have long enjoyed sanctuary here - wildlife ranging from endangered bald eagles to hawks, pelicans, herons and burrowing owls; from deer and coyotes to rabbits and prairie dogs. Visitors give wide berth to more than a few rattlesnakes. Bald eagles can be observed during the winter from a hidden "bunker" overlooking their roosting area. The wildlife have lived relatively quiet lives, protected from the ravages of urban spr awl as well as hunters, but the contamination has caused more than a few agonizing deaths among the animals. Waterfowl, for example, became so disoriented that they crashed into the sides of buildings or died in toxic waste-holding ponds. Not everyone agrees with the refuge plan. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer has a separate agenda. "The arsenal presents a unique recreation opportunity for residents of Colorado's increasingly congested front range," Governor Romer says, adding that "future land use at the arsenal should focus equally on wildlife and people. Recreation should be compatible with the arsenal's abundant wildlife while also allowing maximum public enjoyment." Romer wants the arsenal "cleaned up to the highest possible standard - rega rdless of the eventual future land use at the site." In Commerce City, an industrial community that has felt the negative impact as well as received benefits from the arsenal, the community's part-time mayor wants to get something in the deal. "Commerce City over the last 40 years has been a depressed area. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal is not the sole responsible party, but they have had a portion of the liability," says Mayor David Busby. "I think it would be only fair if they donated that 5 percent of the land [set aside for commercial development] to Commerce City ... and kind of compensate us for lost tax revenues, lack of business moving into the area, and the physical restraints that have been placed on Commerce City." Lt. Col. Eugene Bishop, new project manager at the arsenal, says his biggest problem is operating "a business that's going to go out of business." Bishop said groundwater treatment would continue for years. "We are starting to mitigate the damage," he said. "The people will see a 'good news' story emerging here." Noting that the arsenal is on the top 10 national priorities on the Superfund cleanup list, Bishop said there has "never been a cleanup attempted like this." For 40 years, arsenal operations "we re done with the technology of the day," he said. And now, "the earth is giving back to us what we have given it." Bishop stressed that he wants to see the facility "become a learning resource ... sort of a campus," where cleanup technology could be shared with others. "We are going to make our records here open to the public ... there is no reason why the people should not have a return on their investment," he said. Today deer seeking food and shade quietly roam among the many dilapidated structures that dot arsenal property, eating vegetation as well as food provided by wildlife personnel who also attempt to steer animals away from contaminated areas. Their efforts are not always a complete success, however, as thousands of prairie dogs burrow into the ground, sometimes ingesting buried toxins, which are stored in the animals' fatty tissue. Eagles, hawks, and coyotes that prey on the rodents can ingest these chemic als, Army spokesmen explain. Early this summer, workmen installed a plastic curtain around the perimeter of Basin A, perhaps the most contaminated square mile on earth, to steer prairie dogs away from the area. LOCAL historic preservation and environmental education proponents see a rare educational opportunity that includes preservation of the arsenal chemical plants as well as extensive historic interpretations of the area. "We want to share the broadest possible picture with the public," says project coordinator Chris Ford of Denver's Urban Design Forum, which wants to "create a model for preserving contaminated industrial structures and integrating the history and impact of 20th-century technology in enviro nmental education programs." Visitors could learn about earlier uses of the land - from native peoples who used the area for centuries to the farming by white settlers. And there's the arsenal itself - a chemical-weapons plant turned ecological disaster. Last is the current historical chapter, says Ford, a $2 billion cleanup program and the metamorphosis of a Superfund site into a wildlife refuge. The National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, and the Urban Design Forum will host a conference Nov. 15-16 to explore t he concept of a nature park "that reflects modern-day land use in an era when the bulk of new parks and refuges may come from denuded lands."