Land donation to Turkey Mountain points toward emerging opportunities for Tulsa’s outdoor recreation economy

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

Man, how things have changed over the course of less than four years.

The news out of Tulsa this week was overwhelmingly good when it comes to the status of Turkey Mountain. On Thursday, the city of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation donated 400 acres at Turkey Mountain to the Tulsa River Parks Authority. The move triples the size of RPA’s holdings at Turkey Mountain, and together with a 50-year master lease set up late last year, the future of Turkey Mountain seems more secure than ever before.

That future appears in line with what Turkey Mountain’s users, stakeholders and managers have laid forth: that the park will remain an open green space left in a natural state. Turkey Mountain is loved by trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers and nature enthusiasts, and is known as one of the finest mountain biking trail systems in the country. It’s an asset that has grown in popularity, as can be seen in the increasing number of visitors.

But back in 2014, this seemed in doubt. Simon Properties sought to build an outlet mall on the western side of Turkey Mountain, a project that would have practically sat on top of the Westside YMCA kids camp, threatened trails nearby and caused untold traffic nightmares for years to come. Simon had allies in City Hall, including then-Mayor Dewey Bartlett.

Strong local opposition changed the trajectory of the debate, and years later, Turkey Mountain’s place as one of the city’s premier parks is set.

This brings up a bigger picture that looks even brighter, particularly when it comes to public health and economic diversification. Piece by piece, the Tulsa area’s outdoor recreation inventory is building out in a major way. So, let’s examine that, and see where it’s going.

The foundation of it is in Tulsa River Parks. Paved trail systems and open park land offer Tulsans ample opportunity to walk, run and bike, with larger fields available for team sports (rugby and soccer) and disc golf. On any given weekend, thousands of people are outside, getting exercise or relaxing by the river.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Turkey Mountain, with what it offers, is part of that River Parks system. Besides the daily flow of users, Turkey Mountain is also the scene of cycling races, trail running races, and even festivals. People developing a taste for trail running, hiking and biking introduce new economic opportunities for retailers who sell to people involved in these sports and activities.

On the east bank of the Arkansas River, a massive transformation is unfolding that will change the face of Tulsa’s parks system and the city itself. The $350 million Gathering Place promises to be one of the greatest urban parks in the country. It’s set to open this year, with more development continuing through 2019. There will be something for everything at the Gathering Place, and it will serve as an anchor for the park system for decades to come.

And thanks to the latest Vision Tulsa sales tax initiative, a series of dams on the Arkansas River will guarantee even water flow and good flatwater surfaces. This will open up water sports opportunities like never before. If you’re looking for what might be possible, take a look at what’s happened down the turnpike in Oklahoma City, where a prairie trickle running by downtown has been transformed into an excellent water sports destination. Flatwater kayaking, team rowing and, more recently, whitewater rafting and kayaking has been introduced in the middle of Oklahoma, spurring competitive collegiate rowing sports and attracting an Olympic training center. The transformation brought on by OKC’s Oklahoma River project can easily be duplicated in Tulsa.

Short walls that are good for bouldering, at Chandler Park. 

Elsewhere in the city, the trails and wilds of Tulsa County’s Chandler Park are a hidden gem. Plenty of trail runners have discovered what Chandler Park has to offer: a series of challenging and scenic trails much like Turkey Mountain. Close to the park’s center is a series of bluffs and cliffs that are excellent for rock climbing and bouldering.

Summing it up, within the next few years you will be able to enjoy running, hiking, road biking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing/bouldering, and water sports, all within the city limits of Tulsa.

Growth of outdoor recreation isn’t confined to the city. To the north, people in the city of Claremore are reaping the benefits of the revival of a trail system by Claremore Lake. Work has been ongoing to update and expand that lake’s trail system, and Claremore Lake is quickly becoming a new hotspot for mountain bikers.

And east of Tulsa, folks in Tahlequah are upping their game as well. Tahlequah has long had ample trails to explore, and the Illinois River is well known for people who enjoy float trips, canoeing and kayaking.

A new organization, called Tahlequah Trails, is hoping to build on that, with its stated goal to “support a trail system similar to northwest Arkansas,” according to its Facebook site.

That’s a lofty goal, for sure. Arkansas is one of the top destinations in the country for mountain bikers in the know. But it’s a worthy one, considering how well Arkansas has tapped into its natural beauty to attract athletes and tourists. The state has been better than most when it comes to building its economy by offering people an active place to play.

A cyclist rides the trails at Turkey Mountain.

And that brings me to this: Northeast Oklahoma in general, and Tulsa specifically, has a huge opportunity before it. City leaders and businesses are hungry for growth, and they can find it in outdoor recreation. Nationally, the outdoor recreation economy is more than $887 billion a year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Yes, that’s billion with a “B.”

In Oklahoma, outdoor recreation accounts for $10.6 billion in consumer spending, $3.1 billion in wages and salaries, 97,000 jobs and a whopping $663 million in state and local taxes, according to OIA. Tapping into that economic energy has transformed other cities across the country. Communities like Chattanooga, Tenn., Boulder, Colo., Richmond, Va., and many more have diversified and strengthened their economies while upping their quality of life, thus making them more attractive to other businesses. In the case of Richmond, the presence of ample off-road cycling transformed the city’s economy and even its neighborhoods. Given the natural assets we have here, there is no reason that Tulsa can’t see similar results.

Circling back to the news of the week, we can see momentum building, piece by piece, to set the city up for success. Consolidating and preserving the land at Turkey Mountain has economic and ecological benefits that will pay forward for decades to come. Here’s hoping that we can keep this going. So much has already happened in the span of less than four years.

— Bob Doucette

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Local conservation at work: Trail work day at Turkey Mountain

Volunteers sign up at last month’s Turkey Mountain work day. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

It’s been awhile since the controversy at Turkey Mountain unfolded. You might remember when someone wanted to put an outlet mall there. We’re past that now, and those of us who like to hike, bike and run the trails there are grateful.

But at the time, it was on people’s brains. When we did work days, scores of volunteers showed up to pick up trash, trim back undergrowth and shore up portions of the trails that had become worn down by weather and use.

Now, it’s different. The crowds aren’t as big. But dedicated people are still showing up to give Turkey Mountain a bit of TLC.

When the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition was formed, one of the first things we did was reach out to potentially like-minded organizations locally and in the state. One of those groups was the Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship.

OEF, affiliated with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is active in Oklahoma MTB circles. OEF is a major presence at any race in the state, and has been a force in developing and improving mountain biking routes in Oklahoma. What OEF shares with TUWC is a strong affinity for conservation.

So it was no surprise that when this work day approached, OEF was there, with a pickup and trailer full of tools to get to work.

Volunteers look over a repaired section of trail. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

We embarked on a couple of projects. One was to clear out deadfall and other debris on portions of the trails near the trailhead and beyond. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority led those efforts. The second was to repair a section of trail on a popular route overlooking the the Arkansas River called Ho Chi. Ho Chi is one of those trails that receives more use than just about anywhere else on Turkey Mountain, carved into the side of a ridge that falls away steeply downhill toward the river. As you can imagine, erosion is problematic here.

Repairing the section included finding large rocks and backfill dirt to shore up a section that was washing away. Many hands made for light work, and within a couple of hours, it was done.

Removing debris and deadfall near the trailhead. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

It should be noted that part of the OEF crew came up from Oklahoma City. OEF members have also been involved with trail development projects near Claremore Lake, a new-ish trail system in a distant suburb north of Tulsa.

It was a cool, breezy day, but that didn’t keep the crew from hanging out afterward, cracking open a few beers and sharing stories of races past.

I get a couple of takeaways from this.

First, it’s good to see the MTB community working with hikers and runners on projects like these. In some areas, cyclists and runners/bikers clash. But there was no evidence of that here. Just solid cooperation. We all have a shared interest in protecting wild green space and developing/preserving trail systems that not only help us enjoy the sports we love, but allow others to get outside, get active, become healthier and learn to appreciate how special natural spaces are. The OEF/TUWC partnership has been a good one, and will be for a long time to come.

Second, it’s encouraging to see the ownership people have taken in Turkey Mountain and places like it. If you follow the news much, you’ll notice that many federal and state public lands are at risk. States are running out of money to manage their own parks, and federally owned public lands are under constant pressure from large lobbying interests to be developed for extraction, harvesting and other forms of development. It can be discouraging for conservationists, but there is hope at the local level. Local conservationists worked hard to protect Turkey Mountain from commercial interests, and years later, the lands at Turkey Mountain are more secure than they’ve ever been. Outsider groups didn’t do this. No white knights rode in to save the day. Ordinary people from the Tulsa area banded together, collaborated with Turkey Mountain’s stakeholders convinced local leadership to preserve one of the few urban wild spaces left in the state.

Every time we do a work day, the commitment to this is demonstrated. And each time it’s demonstrated, the merits of conservation are illustrated. Here’s hoping for more of this, and for grassroots conservation to permeate the national discussion on public lands, public health and the value of getting people outdoors.

Bob Doucette

Bigger floods, more fires, stronger storms, longer heat waves: As the climate changes, get used to more of this

Golfers get in a round while wildfires burn in the background. I can’t think of a better metaphor of how climate change is being addressed in Washington right now. (Kristi McCluer, photo)

If you were to summarize and visualize the effects of climate change in the United States, all you would need is a weather recap of 2016 and 2017.

From the National Climate Assessment, these are a couple of the summarized findings and predicted conditions we can expect as the planet warms:

Extreme weather: There have been changes in some types of extreme weather events over the last several decades. Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West. Cold waves have become less frequent and intense across the nation. There have been regional trends in floods and droughts. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense, and cold waves less intense everywhere.

Hurricanes: The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.

I’ve left out the 10 other categories, mostly for the sake of brevity. But to look back on some weather events over the past 12 months or so, it looks like a rogue’s gallery of future conditions climate scientists predict is headed our way.

In November of 2016, severe drought conditions and high winds turned the U.S. Southeast into a tinderbox. Two teens lit matches and threw them on the ground near Gatlinburg, Tenn., starting a firestorm that killed 14 people, torched 2,400 buildings in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, and burned 17,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Future warming is said to threaten the woodlands of the southeastern U.S., turning it from a temperate forest region into a warmer, and far less forested, savannah environment.

During the winter of 2016-2017, the Sierra Nevada Range saw massive snowfall that averaged, in some places, between 500 and 700 inches. This, after years of drought so severe that the entire state of California was on a water rationing plan. Previous snowpack levels were as low as less than 25 percent of normal, and yet this past winter, it was an abrupt reversal. As late as June, eight feet of snow was still present in some areas. While generally welcomed, record precipitation also prompted flooding that caused more than $1 billion in damage and caused the Oroville dam’s spillways to fail.

Not long after this bounty of moisture, the West Coast went through an intense heat wave that prompted one of the worst fire seasons in memory. Wildfires along the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain states burned at record levels. Northern California wildfires are said to be the deadliest and most damaging that the state has ever seen. Seattle went through a near-record span without rain. Portland, Ore., normally a temperate city, broke 100 degrees regularly. And we are told that the nation’s wildfire season continues to steadily grow in length as the years have gone by, particularly in the West.

The 2017 hurricane season saw more extremes. The trend of stronger hurricanes has been on the rise since the 1980s. If this season was any indication, things can get much worse. Hurricane Harvey parked itself over Houston and east Texas, using the abnormally high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico to feed itself for days on end. In addition to storm surge and wind damage, Harvey unloaded a year’s worth of rain on the area in the span of a week. Harvey was followed by Hurricane Irma, which hit Category 5 status at one point, and slammed into Florida with damaging winds, storm surge and flooding. Then came Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, causing damage which could linger for a generation or longer. Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland (Ireland!), the first such storm so strike the island in nearly 60 years. Ophelia was the 10th major hurricane this season, making this the most active hurricane season since 1893.

I could go on. The warming earth has led to the spread of the pine beetle, which has devastated forests in the American West, adding further fuel to already dangerous fire conditions. We could talk about ocean acidification, which stressing marine life and threatening fisheries. And then there is the real possibilities that some places in the world inhabited by hundreds of millions of people could become so hot as to be unlivable (heat deaths in India have been in the thousands as of late, and one city in Iran recorded a heat index of 165 degrees a little more than two years ago), and that warming conditions in Southwest Asia may have contributed to the explosion of violence and turmoil seen in Syria – a crisis which flooded the region with war, sent refugees to Europe by the millions, seismically altered politics on that continent almost overnight, and even had reverberations here in the U.S. Maybe that’s why the Pentagon recently cited climate change as a major threat to U.S. national security.

And just to be clear, we are causing this.

I spend most of my time on this site discussing the outdoors, or fitness, or plenty of other things far less serious than everything detailed above. But I believe that if you love the outdoors, conservationism must be a part of your life. Naturally, a lot of us want to protect the places we enjoy. Many others make their living helping us do just that. And more importantly, we all have a stake in seeing that the places we live, work and play don’t become washed away by floods or turned to ash by fires just because we didn’t pay attention to what the planet is telling us.

And then there’s this: There are people in power trying to downplay the risk, or stifle commentary on it altogether. Multiple federal agencies are being cowed into submission by people representing interests that do not want to see any action on how we deal with climate change. In some cases, they are literally voicing and printing the talking points of industries that fear they might lose revenue and shareholder value should common-sense conservation policy be allowed to take hold.

So pay attention. Get to know who your elected officials are. Write them often. At some point, enough people must speak up for the political class to listen.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma is a case study in why you can’t cede federal public lands to the states

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a developing big-win story for conservation efforts in my hometown of Tulsa. I was feeling pretty good about that, able to block out the signs that there was going to be plenty of bad news on the conservation front coming soon. For now, though, we celebrate. Good vibes all around.

And then one day later, the other shoe dropped. Budget-makers at the Oklahoma Legislature asked the state’s tourism department to come up with a plan to accommodate a 14.5 percent budget cut the next fiscal year.

The answer, in short: Close 16 state parks.

I could write an entire post about how lawmakers’ reckless tax policies over the past decade or so led us to this point, making the state especially vulnerable during difficult economic times. Schools, health, public safety and child welfare have taken huge hits in Oklahoma over the years, in economies both good and bad. But I’ll let others discuss that. Instead, I’ll focus on what the Sooner State could lose if this plan becomes reality, and what this says about the national movement to turn over federal public lands to the states.

Here’s a list of parks and facilities Oklahoma could lose:

  • Talimena State Park
  • Great Plains State Park
  • Cherokee Landing State Park
  • Natural Falls State Park
  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Great Salt Plains State Park
  • Lake Eufaula State Park
  • Lake Wister State Park
  • Alabaster Caverns State Park
  • McGee Creek State Park
  • Foss Lake State Park
  • Osage Hills State Park
  • Greenleaf State Park
  • Lake Texoma State Park
  • Grand Lake State Parks
  • Boiling Springs State Park
  • Grand Cherokee Golf Course

I haven’t been to all of these, but of visited several of them. Greenleaf State Park is an awesomely hilly, wooded and wild place in eastern Oklahoma that’s long been a favorite for the outdoorsy set. Alabaster Caverns State Park features great caves to explore, is one of the few places you can go caving, and is prime habitat for bats. Osage Hills State Park is a hidden gem, nestled in wooded hills northwest of Tulsa. Red Rock Canyon State Park offers prime rappelling.

Last summer, I made a point to explore another one of these places, Natural Falls State Park. I wrote about it here. Here are some scenes from Natural Falls:

Natural Falls.

Mossy oak.

A stretch of rugged trail at Natural Falls State Park.

 

All of these could face closure if these cuts become reality in the state’s next budget. Needless to say, this would be a huge loss for the state, its residents, and the tourism industry that Oklahoma is promoting on its new license plates. The irony is pretty thick with that one.

The plate encourages drivers to “explore Oklahoma” and visit the state tourism department’s website, travelok.com. But there might be less to explore really soon.

The larger point: Oklahoma is showing why you don’t want to hand over federal public lands to the states. Oklahoma is just one of many states to pursue the Kansas-style form of tax policy, that lowering taxes will increase job growth and eventually lead to higher revenues. That hasn’t happened in Kansas, and it sure isn’t happening in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and many other states that are experimenting with this. Instead, it’s leaving states unable to fund even basic, core functions of state government.

In Oklahoma, we can’t pay our teachers enough to compete with surrounding states, and they’re leaving in droves. Our state troopers can only drive so far from their headquarters to patrol the highways. Our prisons are staffed at 65 percent with underpaid guards who often have to resort to food stamps to feed their families. Is there any doubt that Oklahoma could not handle the added cost of taking over its part of the Ouchita National Forest, or the entirety of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? How much greater would this burden be on cash-strapped western states where the federal public lands inventory is much larger?

And maybe that’s the end-game, to give public lands back to the states, who, when forced to carry that burden, have no choice but to sell it all off. We know where that ends: Wide-scale privatization, which means loss of forest, loss of grazing lands, and loss of public access. The list of those who lose — hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers, climbers, cyclists, ranchers, tourism businesses and more — is lengthy.

Oklahoma’s budget process is still in the early stages, and it’s not certain what will become of its parks. There is already a petition going around to save the parks. But in the big picture, Oklahoma is the canary in the mine when it comes to public lands and land management policy for federal lawmakers and policymakers. Voters favor longstanding public lands policy that preserves national parks, forests and other federal holdings for use by the people. Adopting a policy of divestiture in favor of state control will do exactly the opposite of what the majority of the public wants. And by looking at what’s happening in Oklahoma, we know what the end result will be: a rapid loss of public access to treasured natural spaces in favor of the highest bidder.

Bob Doucette

A conservation win: Master lease plan would keep Turkey Mountain wild for the long term

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

An important announcement about the future of Tulsa’s wild green spaces and park lands was made on Monday. At a news conference at the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness’ trailhead parking lot, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he’s proposing a 50-year “master lease” be given to property currently managed and developed by the city’s River Parks Authority. Inside that inventory of park lands is Turkey Mountain, a trail system of minimally developed woodlands that’s popular with runners, cyclists, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The proposed master lease would consolidate a bunch of individual leases the city currently has on about 900 acres of land under the River Parks umbrella. The thought behind this idea would be to simplify and solidify any planning that has to do with some of the most treasured green spaces in the city.

To me, this is such a stark contrast to what we saw back in 2014, when developers and some folks in City Hall, including former mayor Dewey Bartlett, were talking about building an outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west edge. Now instead of developing it, the new mayor, Bynum, is talking about preserving it for at least half a century. Talk about an about face!

There is some unpacking to do here, given what was said on Monday afternoon. So here goes…

I don’t think most people realized how tenuous the status of Turkey Mountain and the rest of the River Parks System really is. As it stands, every parcel leased by the city must be renewed every 30 days. In theory, every square inch of Turkey Mountain could have been sold off to the highest bidder if the lease was allowed to lapse. In reality, that would be politically difficult – we saw how hard a lot of people fought plans for Helmerich Park, which is essentially a strip of open grass and sand volleyball courts. But it would have been possible under the lease structure now used by the city. And don’t think there aren’t people who’d love to plop a subdivision or some restaurants/office space/retail stores on a hill with a view. It wasn’t long ago a developer wanted to put an amusement park at Turkey Mountain, and Mr. Bartlett last year even mused about stuffing a restaurant at the top of the hill. The master lease proposal would effectively end that possibility.

If the proposal is approved, it’s going to make it a lot easier for RPA to spend money on land acquisition, which could expand the footprint of Turkey Mountain. Some $6 million has already been set aside for that purpose, and if the existing park land is secure, adding to it will become simpler and more attractive. Another $1.6 million is set aside for making improvements, which would be easier to commit to if you know the land in question isn’t going to be changing hands anytime soon. Most people who use Turkey Mountain wouldn’t mind seeing more woodlands to explore, more trails to ride, and more elbow room for an increasingly popular – and crowded – trail system.

Conventional wisdom says the master lease will invite more private investment. Whether it’s donations for park enhancements or possibly something else done on the privately owned sections of Turkey Mountain, Bynum made a point to say that the stability of a master lease would encourage philanthropic donations and more. The terms “zip lines” and “climbing boulders” were tossed about, so you could see a more diversified land-use plan unfold if this idea goes through.

With that said, serious conversations about land use need to start. Zip lines are a blast, and climbing is fun. But what will a canopy tour zip line do to the overall park user experience? Will the presence of such things detract from the “wild” nature of Turkey Mountain? And I imagine “climbing boulders” would need to be installed. I’ve seen all the rock faces at Turkey Mountain, and they’re not good for climbing. You’d also have to consider wildlife impact. The park is there for us to use, but a number of species call Turkey Mountain home. Any development inside its confines will need to answer these questions, and do so with all stakeholders in mind.

In any case, these are good things to be talking about. It’s rare that a Great Plains city like Tulsa has a parks system like we have, and especially a place like Turkey Mountain. The table appears to be set to preserve urban wild lands for the long haul, and also substantially invest in them. That in turn will help make the city’s residents healthier, boost tourism and enhance efforts to recruit new businesses and residents. Conservation also wins here, and wins big.

It’s not often you can look at government and say, “they’re on the right track.” But in this case, that appears to be true.

Bob Doucette

Scott Pruitt, the EPA and the looming legacy of Tom Joad

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is the Trump administration's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is the Trump administration’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

I’ve waited a bit for the fallout of the November elections to settle, to give myself a little time to take stock in what the results will mean when it comes to conservation. There are a lot of mixed messages coming out of Donald Trump’s transition team as to what we can expect from his administration concerning public lands and the environment.

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know where I stand here. Federal public lands belong to all of us, and federal stewardship of these lands are key to preserving them for everyone. A lot is also at stake when it comes to issues of clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, public health and those who work in tourism and the outdoor industry, itself a $646 billion contributor to the national economy. A healthy public lands system and a vigilant stance on clean air and water are vital.

I’m not going to say much (at least not yet) of Trump’s pick for interior secretary, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. All I know for certain is she seems to agree lockstep with the Republican Party platform on public lands, that is to open them up for drilling, mining, logging and, if so desired, sale to the states or private interests for use of their choosing. She is also a climate science denier. Clearly these are stances in which I am in disagreement, and her leadership of the agency that manages federal public lands might be a good topic in the future.

But I do want to examine the broader picture of the nation’s air, water and land. And there is one particular nominee I do want to focus on, and that is Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. While my knowledge of Rep. McMorris is relatively thin, it’s different for the EPA pick, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve lived here since I was a teenager. I’ve come to know Oklahoma’s stories well, some more than others. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, if you’re not familiar with Mr. Pruitt, here’s a small primer…

Scott Pruitt is fairly typical in what you see in Republican political circles, advocating for smaller government and fewer federal regulations. Like Rep. McMorris, he’s a climate science denier, calling climate change “far from settled science.” When he was elected attorney general, he set up a unit in that office to monitor and take legal action on anything he deemed “federal overreach.” He sued the federal government over certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and joined Nebraska in suing the state of Colorado over its legalization of recreational marijuana use and sale.

But his biggest legal target has been the EPA, the very agency he is slated to lead. On at least eight occasions, the EPA has been sued by Pruitt’s office over regulations regarding emissions from oil and gas production and coal-fired power plants. He has close ties to the energy industry, taking in more than $316,000 in campaign contributions over the years from individuals and groups with ties to that sector; Pruitt’s PACs have received even more. In fact, those ties are so close that he once accepted and signed a letter to the EPA that was written for him (with a few minor edits) by officials at Devon Energy, a large Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company.

Politics being what they are, and with Oklahoma being a very conservative state, none of this should be much of a surprise, though in some instances, it does send up a few red flags.

But you’d think a guy who has lived in this state for any length of time would learn some of its history, and particularly what has happened when lax environmental regulations and practices run amok. The answer is stark, and at times, quite terrible. Here are four that come to mind, in case Mr. Pruitt needs a reminder…

1930s dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla.

1930s dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla.

The Dust Bowl. Back in the 1930s, crop rotation and soil conservation wasn’t much of a thing. Huge swathes of Oklahoma acreage (as well as significant chunks of Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado) were vulnerable to losing topsoil (and thus creating a perfect storm for crop failure) if the conditions were right. Around the time the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, record heat and drought created those conditions, wiping out crops, bankrupting farmers and creating huge dust storms that blacked out the sun. Lessons from the Dust Bowl days taught us a lot about proper soil conservation, but not before thousands lost their farms, livelihoods and homes. Great migrations of Oklahomans headed west, and a famous book, complete with Okie stereotypes’s personified by John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad protagonist, followed.

The Sequoyah Fuels disaster. Nuclear power seemed to be the answer for American energy independence, but funny things happen when you start playing with radioactive materials. The Sequoyah Fuels Corporation had a nuclear fuel processing plant near the small town of Gore, Okla., and in 1986, an explosion there released 29,500 pounds of gaseous uranium hexafluoride, launching a 30-foot column of poisonous fumes into the air. One person died and 37 people were hospitalized. General Atomics bought the site a few years later, then suffered its own troubles — a 20,000-pound spill of uranium tetraflouride powder, and the discovery of some 21,000 pounds of uranium under the site’s main processing building. Uranium levels in the groundwater underneath the plant were 35,000 times higher than federal regulations allowed.

The facility was eventually shut down, but there are still buildings near the plant site — including the old Carlisle School — that remain abandoned for fear of radioactive contamination. Several million cubic feet of contaminated material are on the site to this day, and there is fear that toxins could leak into groundwater or taint the nearby Arkansas River. Maybe a little more red tape and a few more regulations would have helped (though that would be an Energy Department and not an EPA function). In lieu of that, Sequoyah Fuels’ buildings, vehicles, toxic sludge and contaminated soil have all been buried underneath large berms, which will be monitored by the Department of Energy (and Rick Perry!) once the cleanup operation is complete.

Chat piles of toxic mine tailings loom over a neighborhood in Picher, Okla.

Chat piles of toxic mine tailings loom over a neighborhood in Picher, Okla.

Tar Creek. In what is Oklahoma’s biggest environmental catastrophe, and what is dubbed by some to be the country’s worst environmental disaster, a small corner of northeastern Oklahoma that was rich in lead and zinc deposits is now a major EPA Superfund Site. Dating back to the late 1800s (and seeing its heyday through much of the 20th century), zinc and lead mining in Ottawa County, Okla., as well as adjacent parts of southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, was big business. As with any large mining operation, there are waste products — called mine tailings — that end up being left behind once the ore of the desired material is refined. So in the towns of Picher and Cardin, massive chat piles of mine tailings rose around and within the community like small mountains. But the chat piles were contaminated, poisoning ground water, creeks and streams. Children in these communities began suffering the effects of lead poisoning, and with no realistic way to clean up the mess, the government was forced to buy out all the properties in Picher and Cardin. Both communities are now ghost towns, forcibly abandoned by contaminants left out in the open during a time when mine tailing regulations were spotty at best. Waters in the Tar Creek area are still poisoned, and unlike the towns’ residents and many of their homes and businesses (a tornado wiped out many structures there in 2008), those giant chat piles remain.

quakes

Oklahoma earthquakes. This may be a shock to you, but Oklahoma has a history of seismicity. In 1952, a 5.5 earthquake shook the state, and even cracked the floor of the state Capitol. But most Oklahoma earthquakes were small and rare. Until around 2009. At that time, and with increasing frequency and strength, Oklahoma went from being a mostly earthquake-free state to the country’s most seismically active. Temblors went from infrequent to several hundred a year in that time, and in some cases, damaging — a 2011 event near the central Oklahoma town of Prague buckled pavement, damaged homes and toppled portions of buildings as far as 30 miles from the epicenter. In 2016, a series of earthquakes near the towns of Pawnee and Cushing did even more damage, with one quake registering a 5.8 magnitude — a state record.

The cause was not some new mountain range trying to break through the state’s famous red clay. No, it was caused by the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling activities. By drilling deep disposal wells and injecting wastewater underground, fault lines long dormant were exposed and activated. The severity won’t rival anything along the San Andreas fault of California, but the damage is enough to spawn a number of lawsuits. The state was slow to respond, and received a lot of pressure from the energy industry and its political allies to downplay any link between oil and gas activity and the quakes. Eventually, science won, and soon after we discovered that if you decrease or shut down disposal well activities in quake zones, the number of quakes diminishes. But scientists warn us that even with tighter regulations on disposal wells, the damage is done — Oklahoma will likely see more quakes, and the chance of something 5.0-magnitude or greater still exists. This will likely persist for another 5-10 years, according to one study.

Obviously, Pruitt is not to blame for these events, and the EPA’s scope wouldn’t cover them all. But as an elected official representing this state, they are things of which he should be aware, and the lessons therein point toward the need to keep a close eye on how human activity affects the environment. No one wants an overly intrusive federal government that squashes business. But the EPA’s role in protecting the nation’s air and water is vital. It’s one that shouldn’t be relegated to a “hands-off” approach until something bad happens. It needs to be a proactive watchdog.

It’s been said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed by it. Mr. Pruitt should look at Oklahoma’s environmental history and understand that when he heads to Washington, his job isn’t to serve the donors that have fueled his political ambitions. His job is to protect the land, the air and the water. It’s to protect us, so we don’t suffer calamities like the ones I described above.

Don’t let the legacy of Tom Joad come back haunt the entire country.

Bob Doucette

A conservation success story on Colorado’s Mount Shavano that we can build on

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano, as seen from Salida, Colo.

Mount Shavano holds a special place for me.

It’s not the prettiest mountain, or the tallest, or the most challenging to climb. But it’s a great choice for folks looking for a good alpine summit hike within sight of Salida, one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns.

Shavano was the second 14er I climbed, way back in 2004, and two weeks after I did my first. My brother and I hiked it in perfect conditions, and for a long time, it remained my favorite of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

On Shavano's summit, in 2004.

On Shavano’s summit, in 2004.

Five years later, I climbed it again with my friend Johnny. We’d never done a snow climb before, and Shavano’s Angel Couloir is an excellent place to cut your teeth on that front. It was a long, memorable and amazing day. I’ll probably go back so I can reach the summit of Tabeguache Peak, a shorter, neighboring mountain connected to Shavano by a ridge.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

My friend Johnny getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano in 2009. The land here is part of a mining claim.

Recently, I learned some news. Unknown to a bunch of us until now, Mount Shavano’s summit block is privately owned, a part of an old mining claim. It’s common for parts of the 14ers to have mining claims, and usually that doesn’t present much of a problem. But the upper portions of Shavano’s standard route are in need of some trail work, something the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative – a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to the Colorado high country – had hoped to carry out. They key here is to make a sustainable route as to prevent further damage on the mountain, something the current route does not do.

The U.S. Forest Service wanted to oblige, but couldn’t because of the mining claim.

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

And all this time, who knew that this pile of rocks was privately owned?

So CFI sought to raise $40,500 to buy up the parcels at Shavano’s summit. A successful fundraising campaign would allow CFI do the work needed to give this peak the needed trail upgrade it and its hikers deserve.

Tens of thousands of people hike and climb Colorado’s 14ers every year. Once word got out, people started donating to help the cause. It didn’t take long and the money was raised.

This is one of those great success stories of where conservation efforts meet up with land users to make a difference. But the Shavano story is just one of many. Increasing foot traffic on Colorado’s high peaks causes a good deal of wear and tear on the trails. Social trails are a problem, as they contribute to erosion in the very delicate environment of the alpine. CFI has done tremendous work to solve these problems, creating safe, durable trails that serve hikers while also helping to protect sensitive ecosystems above treeline.

I’d love to go through all of CFI’s success stories, but I’ll point to one in particular.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

A very helpful cairn built on the upper standard route of Mount of the Holy Cross, courtesy of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

For many years, hikers coming down from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross would find the descent confusing. Folks would sometimes get lost. And more than once, an errant hiker would become confused and unable to find their way out of the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain’s standard route. People disappeared and died.

CFI remedied that with an improved route and sizable cairns to direct people toward the proper way down the mountain. Not only did this improve the route, but likely saved lives going forward.

If you’re interested in supporting efforts like these, here’s a link to donate to CFI. They’re a great group that does a tremendous amount of hard work making hikers’ and climbers’ lives easier by building and maintaining solid routes up these popular peaks. They’ve earned our trust, and we definitely owe this organization our thanks. Give it some thought, and by all means, throw a few bucks their way. It’ll be worth it.

Bob Doucette