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

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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

Want to give back? Five things to do to get your hands dirty

Look at all that junk they found!

Look at all that junk they found!

Not too long ago, I was on a Twitter chat with some fellow outdoor enthusiasts. One of the questions asked: In what ways to you give back?

I heard a lot of different responses. Some had talked about taking people with them into the outdoors, so they can learn to appreciate it like they do. But most commonly, the people in that chat – and many others in similar forums over the years – responded by saying they write about the outdoors, share their experiences on social media, or otherwise use their online channels to promote the outdoors, conservation and outdoor culture.

Valuable efforts, to be sure. There is a lot of power in social media, especially when it comes to advocacy. I’ve seen it many times — both locally in my hometown, and on a more national scale. It’s become an important tool for people pushing the message of conservation and overall appreciation of the outdoors.

Similarly, I see that also played out in the blogosphere. Most blogs — including this one — have relatively limited reach, but even the most obscure sites can catch fire if the message is right and the right people see it and share it with others. And those messages can sometimes move mountains.

A number of you out there live this out. Your own social media channels — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatnot — are peppered with messages that encourage protection of our natural resources. I love it when I see this, and I hope to see more. Your own blogs and websites are repositories of good information encouraging people to get outdoors, to care for the environment, and support those groups, companies and individuals who do the same.

It’s here, however, that I want to throw the gauntlet. I want you to go deeper.

One of the best things that I’ve come across since moving to Tulsa was getting involved in local efforts to preserve and protect wild lands. I remember going on my first trail cleanup day a few years back, hauling out trash from abused portions of woodlands that are commonly used by local hikers, trail runners and cyclists. It was just a few hours out of the day, a bit of elbow grease and some good times getting to know people who had the same convictions on conservation that I did. Semi-annual cleanup and trail maintenance days are events I look forward to, and we’ve been seeing growing numbers as the years have gone by.

Doin' work.

Doin’ work.

So consider this a challenge. If you’re a social media influencer, a blogger, or whatnot, take your efforts a bit further. Do these things:

1. Find a local conservation group, organization, park service or other entity and see what volunteer opportunities they offer for doing trail work and land restoration in the areas you care about. The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition is my local go-to, as it works with the city’s River Parks Authority and other local groups for efforts in and around the city. Another example, this one in Colorado, would be the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. They do great work making sustainable routes up that state’s popular 14,000-foot peaks. Every state and many cities have groups just like these. Go find ’em!

2. Commit to taking part in a volunteer work effort. Even if you have no particular skill in land management labor, don’t let that stop you. Your presence and willingness to work is usually all that’s needed. With more technical stuff (trail building), techniques can be taught.

3. Do your best to promote it through your social media channels and websites — you’d be surprised how many others are looking for similar opportunities, but don’t know where to go or what they can do.

4. On the day or days of the project, get your hands dirty. Pick up trash. Prune foliage from trail paths. Grab a shovel, a wheelbarrow, a saw or a hoe and put your back into it.

5. Lastly, make this a habit. It doesn’t have to be every other week or even monthly. But at least a couple times a year, grab a pair of work gloves, whatever tools you might need, and sacrifice a day of hiking, running, climbing, camping, cycling or whatever and give back via the sweat of your brow.

There are good reasons for doing this, other than being a warm body on a volunteer labor project. This is leading by example. It’s also a learning opportunity, to see what goes into the actual practice of conservation, trail maintenance and land management. And you’ll get a chance to connect with like-minded people — networking can happen over a shovel.

Yes, couch removal counts as land restoration.

Yes, couch removal counts as land restoration.

So there it is. Obviously, this message could go out to just about anybody. But there is a community of people online who are preaching the values of conservation, the worth of outdoor recreation, and the need to better understand human interaction with wild places. My hope is that this community is not only the vanguard of spreading the message, but also the point of the spear — or the spade — when it comes to the work of translating these stated values into action.

How are you giving back? Leave your stories in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Four takes on what Turkey Mountain’s National Recreation Trails designation means

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

National Trails Day brought some good news for conservationists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts in northeast Oklahoma. On Friday. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced six sites as being included in the National Recreation Trails System. Three trails on Turkey Mountain are part of that list.

This, on the day before National Trails Day.

The news was spread pretty quickly, and not just a few people were pretty pleased about the designation. Tulsa’s mayor, Dewey Bartlett, joined the chorus — quite a feat, considering how just months before he was talking about putting a restaurant on Turkey Mountain, and in the weeks and months before that, pulling hard for an outlet mall to be built on Turkey Mountain’s west side.

In any case, the news is, indeed, pretty good. But what does it mean? I did a little looking around to see what might happen next, what people’s questions were, and how this might guide future decisions on green space preservation and development along the Arkansas River, which flows past Turkey Mountain’s eastern flank.

Here’s what I came up with…

Turkey Mountain is on quite a winning streak. The National Recreation Trails designation is the latest of many positive developments for Turkey Mountain and its trail system. The outlet mall plan was scrapped after heavy public opposition, and with the passage of a sales tax package in April, the land in question (which was privately held at the time) was purchased and folded into the River Parks Authority system. The land, which had suffered from tree and brush clearing and illegal trash dumping, is slowly being restored to its natural state while most of the garbage dumped there has been removed. There are now more trails permanently protected, and more natural habitat for wildlife preserved for the future. This also bodes well for the Westside YMCA camp, which has a permanent buffer of woodlands to its south.

The Interior Department’s designation has real benefits. Being recognized nationally gives Turkey Mountain specifically and Tulsa generally positive publicity. It further showcases a recreational asset that is uncommon to Midwestern cities. And, by being a part of the national system, Turkey Mountain is now eligible for promotion, technical advice and even potential grant money to make more improvements.

National recognition does not mean a federal takeover. I read through comments on a story about this news, and there were plenty of people bemoaning federal government involvement, takeover, overreach and all the other buzzwords you tend to hear when anything comes down from Washington. However you feel about the federal government, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area is still locally owned and controlled by Tulsa’s River Parks Authority. It is not part of the National Parks Service, the National Forest System, the Bureau of Land Management or any other arm of the Department of the Interior. Personally, I’m a huge fan of federal public lands. But I also like what we do here locally at Turkey Mountain. That’s not going to change. But opportunities for future improvements and conservation will be enhanced.

The conversation on urban green space is likely to grow and evolve. Turkey Mountain’s journey from an obscure (and sometimes maligned) park to a popular destination was slow, but it accelerated greatly over the past several years. The outlet mall controversy elevated its profile in the city, and usage of its trail system has grown significantly. There is talk about what trail system could be next for improvements — perhaps Chandler Park (great, scenic trails and rock climbing/bouldering awaits), or other places. Development along the Arkansas River will be a hot topic for years to come, with competing interests seeking commercial development vs. more recreational, park-like development. It’s good we’re having these conversations. There will be tension on this front for quite some time, but if park and river corridor development is done right, the city has the potential to be a prime destination for outdoor recreation tourism, and its assets useful tools for overall business recruitment.

I spent part of National Trails Day getting a little dirt under my feet, running a short, hilly loop through the woods. As usual, I saw mountain bikers, other runners, and plenty of families hiking. This is a great thing, and it can be built upon. Already, efforts to do just that are paying off, and we’re getting noticed — not just by fellow Tulsans and Oklahomans, but by people from across the country.

Bob Doucette

The next step: Reclaiming more of Turkey Mountain

Assorted junk someone couldn't throw in their own garbage can. So they used the woods instead.

Assorted junk someone couldn’t throw in their own garbage can. So they used the woods instead.

This weekend, the Tulsa River Parks Authority and the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition conducted another cleanup day at Turkey Mountain, but this time it was a little different. For the first time, the efforts focused on newly acquired land that had once been pegged for commercial development.

In 2014, a 60-acre tract of land on Turkey Mountain’s west side was offered to a developer for the purpose of building an outlet mall, a plan which brought about strong local opposition. So strong, in fact, that the proposal was scrapped and the developer moved on to another site. Shortly thereafter, the land was part of a sales tax proposal that would include its purchase by the city and addition to the River Parks system.

This was a huge victory for local conservationism, and on so many levels. Green space is good for the air, prevents erosion into the watershed, and expands wildlife habitat at Turkey Mountain. More importantly, it represents a shift in thinking in terms of proper land use — where commercial development does not trump conservation, but instead works with it. And as a nice bonus, it boosts Tulsa’s growing outdoor recreation economy by expanding the trails on which people can run, hike and ride.

But a lot has happened to that parcel in the months and years since it was targeted for a shopping center.

Large vehicles used for surveying created sizable, rutted “jeep trails” throughout the property. Hundreds of trees were removed and underbrush cleared, seemingly at random. And its accessibility to a nearby road and highway made it a convenient place for illegal trash dumping.

Volunteers lift a discarded couch into a front-end loader. Old furniture seems to be a popular thing to dump in the woods.

Volunteers lift a discarded couch into a front-end loader. Old furniture seems to be a popular thing to dump in the woods.

There’s not much we can do about the first two problems. Nature and time will have to take care of that. But the three-dozen or so people who showed up for the cleanup could definitely work on the third.

The River Parks Authority brought in a tractor with a front-end loader, two commercial dumpsters and a pickup. Volunteers showed up with loppers and a good supply of elbow grease. And then we set upon the mess.

Large trash piles contained all sorts of refuse: Old tires. Discarded TVs. Children’s books. Broken appliances. Construction supplies. A couple of old couches, a recliner, and a mattress set.

Some unsavory items also littered woods, but I won’t get into that. We also found a football that still held air (a little fun was had with that) and a carpenter’s level that still worked (that one went home with me).

What I really liked, however, was the assortment of people who came. Some folks were those you would expect: trail runners, mountain bikers, nature lovers and more. But there were also people who had never been there before, but heard about the work day and decided to come. Pretty cool stuff.

Included in the trash we picked up was this old campaign sign from U.S. Sen. James Lankford's most recent efforts. I'm sure the senator isn't responsible for dumping the sign here, but given his track record on conservation, climate and public lands, it's sort of fitting. In a sad way.

Included in the trash we picked up was this old campaign sign from U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s most recent efforts. I’m sure the senator isn’t responsible for dumping the sign here, but given his track record on conservation, climate and public lands, it’s sort of fitting.

In the end, we filled both of those commercial dumpsters with illegally dumped trash. And in the weeks before, the River Parks Authority installed cable barriers and a locked gate to prevent future polluters from dumping their crap in the woods.

Back in 2014, a bunch of us decided it was not OK to mow down a forest to build a mall and a parking lot. Earlier this spring, voters decided to have the city buy the land to preserve it. And on Saturday, the reclamation project continued by cleaning it up. Years from now, the forest will finish reclaiming it, much to the benefit of local wildlife, the city, and its residents.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

Bob Doucette