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

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A river, an election and a game-changer for Tulsa

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

Elections on Tuesday night may have been a game-changer for the city of Tulsa.

A number of things were on the ballot, but one issue in particular — more than $500 million for economic development — has the possibility of putting Tulsa on the national map of outdoor recreation.

The proposition, which earned more than 60 percent approval from voters, does a number of things. Two of those really stand out.

The first — two dams on the Arkansas River to “put water in the river,” or basically create a couple of small reservoirs that should provide consistent bodies of water.

The second — $7.6 million to acquire land for the expansion of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area.

Let’s start with the dams. As it stands, water flowing in the river through Tulsa is at the mercy of how much is released from the upstream Keystone Dam. Keystone provides flood control while creating a large lake for recreation and water supply. Keystone also has a hydroelectric power station. All of these purposes affect how much water is released downstream. Sometimes the river is full, sometimes it’s mostly sand bars. The latter is more common than not, and aside from fishing, there isn’t much you can do with a partially drained river.

Creating larger bodies of water on the river offers a number of possibilities. To see what that looks like, all you have to do is drive 90 minutes down the turnpike to Oklahoma City and observe what has happened there.

A smaller river — the North Canadian — flows by downtown Oklahoma City. OKC is drier than Tulsa, and in its natural state, the Canadian is more of a prairie trickle than anything else. But as part of a large sales tax package passed in the 1990s, a dam system was built that turned the dusty Canadian — dubbed the Oklahoma River — into an inviting stretch of calm, flat water within walking distance of Oklahoma City’s downtown entertainment district.

The Oklahoma River project created an entirely new outdoor recreation culture out of nothing. A couple of universities started rowing teams. A number of boathouses were built. Rowing, kayaking and other water sports began to flourish. An Olympic training center was established in what is now called the Boathouse District. Regional and national competitions happen in Oklahoma City. And very soon, an addition to the river project — a whitewater kayaking course — will open. The Boathouse District has turned into the next hot draw for Oklahoma City. Most importantly, it’s exposing people to a new form of outdoor recreation that should help future generations of Oklahomans lead active, healthier lives.

These are the types of things that happen in mountain communities or seaside cities, not in the middle of the Southern Plains. And yet there it is.

The potential for something similar — or even greater — happening in Tulsa is very real. The Arkansas River is considerably larger than the Canadian, and the prospect of a couple of large flatwater sections of the in town creates the possibility of all sorts of water sports taking off.

Outdoor recreation as a focus of Arkansas River development is the city’s best bet. We’ve seen what’s happened in Oklahoma City. Farther east, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, leaders there took advantage of their river and the surrounding hills and mountains to create a vibrant outdoor culture that has become a huge part of that city’s economy. Chattanooga has been so successful that it earned Outside Magazine’s top city in the U.S. in 2015, the second time it’s won that honor.

Oklahoma lacks the topography of the Smokies, but Tulsa is in a position to compete. The dams would be anchored by A Gathering Place for Tulsa — the huge, $350 million park now being constructed along the river — and Turkey Mountain, widely recognized as one of the best mountain biking  destinations in the country. All of it will be connected via an extensive River Parks trail system that already exists on both sides of the river. The southernmost dam will be close to the Oklahoma Aquarium, a substantial facility that is a good-sized draw in its own right.

The city would be wise to focus on outdoor recreation and resist the temptation to line the banks of a newly full river with box stores, apartment complexes and subdivisions. Those would be the easy things, but would lack the pull that the river could have as a quality of life asset focused on outdoor recreation. The opportunity is huge.

This vista was once destined to be a shopping center parking lot. It's now going to be protected, wild park land.

This vista was once destined to be a shopping center parking lot. It’s now going to be protected, wild park land.

A second, smaller portion of this project — the $7.6 million for Turkey Mountain — dovetails nicely with the river dam projects. It closes the circle on a drama that began in 2014 when outlet mall developer Simon Properties announced it would build a shopping center a Turkey Mountain’s western edge. The plan faced stiff community opposition, so much so that it moved on to another location.

The land in question was still in limbo, so two community benefactors — the George Kaiser Family Foundation and QuikTrip Corp. — plunked down the money to take the acreage in question off the market. Passage of Tuesday’s proposal will pay back those benefactors (their purchase was basically a loan) and fold that land into the River Parks system. There will be enough money left over for more improvements at Turkey Mountain, and perhaps (this is speculation on my part) the purchase of more, adjacent land.

This  is great news for outdoor enthusiasts in the Tulsa area. Turkey Mountain has long been a favorite place to go for mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, equestrians and nature lovers. Its popularity has grown over the years and is increasingly a destination for families. Its expansion is a public commitment to maintaining and growing the value of urban green spaces, a forward-thinking concept that is at the root of why the mall plan was rejected and why, now, Turkey Mountain’s trail system has become a priority. (Future prospects for Chandler Park, with all the trail amenities of Turkey Mountain, plus rock climbing and bouldering areas, look good as well.)

Tulsa’s current economy shows that dependence on the energy industry can be risky. Economic diversification should be a priority going forward. By adopting an outdoor recreation strategy that involves the river, the dams, and Turkey Mountain, Tulsa can transform itself into a draw for visitors, and even a place where people and companies want to be.

Was Tuesday’s election really a game-changer? It depends how the river corridor is managed from this point forward. But if the city plays its cards right, maybe Outside Magazine looks at us for its top cities list.

Bob Doucette

From the mayor’s office, a tone-deaf remark concerning development on Turkey Mountain

Worth protecting.

Worth protecting.

Just when you think things are on the right track, something happens to remind you just how tenuous that can be.

Tulsa city councilors and the mayor, Dewey Bartlett, met recently to discuss what sort of projects they’d like to see in an upcoming sales tax proposition to improve the city. One idea that has been floated was setting aside funds to purchase land and expand the boundaries of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area.

And then the mayor chimed in with these, shall we say, interesting words:

“My suggestion … would be that certain portions of the land in the area be set aside for purposes that would generate sales tax for the city of Tulsa. In other words, right on top of Turkey Mountain have an area set aside for a restaurant, beautiful views of the city, a place for people when they go walking, they could go see it. …

“The community, the taxpayers, not all are interested in walking through the woods at Turkey Mountain, but they will be very interested in going up to a restaurant or going up to a facility where they could sit and watch, look, experience nature, whatever that might be.”

My friend Kevin Canfield, a former coworker who now reports for The Frontier website, recorded this account in his Hyperlocal blog. Being a decent reporter, he followed up with the mayor’s office. Bartlett’s chief of staff sought to clarify this, saying Bartlett isn’t offering a plan that specific, but did say that some sort of commercial development there needs to be considered, something akin to the Blue Rose restaurant on the other side of the river close to downtown.

When I read this, I was stunned. A few angry, coarse words floated through my mind. Given everything that went down after Simon Properties wanted to plop an outlet mall there, how in the world would any elected official in this city even dream of such a thing?

I took a deep breath. Sat on it overnight. And then came to a few conclusions.

A little background: About 14 months ago, Simon Properties announced plans to put an outlet mall at the intersection of U.S. 75 and 61st Street, right on the western edge of Turkey Mountain and overlooking a YMCA kids camp just to the north. While some voiced support, most people opposed the plan. Trail users of all kinds – hikers, runners, cyclists and more – signed a petition by the thousands, wrote council members and showed up en masse at public forums to discuss it. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the proposal forced Simon to seek another location, and put locals on a path to try to secure the land in question from future development.

Now some context: While most of the city council disagreed, Bartlett was a huge proponent of Simon’s initial plan, even in the face of serious opposition.

Please tell me you don't want a McDonald's on top of this.

Please tell me you don’t want a McDonald’s on top of this.

So, some conclusions…

First, the mayor does not seem to realize how strongly people feel about keeping Turkey Mountain free from development and in a natural state. I’m not sure how this is possible, given the one-sided opposition to the original Simon plan, or the figures cited that Turkey Mountain will see more visitors on a good weather weekend than the city’s top tourist draw, the Tulsa Zoo. His comments about putting commercial development “right on top of” Turkey Mountain sounds tone deaf, defiant, or maybe both.

Second, he doesn’t seem to understand that the economic value of the land is not tied to how many cash registers are ringing there. True, Turkey Mountain delivers no direct revenue to the city. But indirectly, it generates millions of dollars. Cyclists spend thousands of dollars apiece on their bikes and associated gear. Runners and hikers might not spend as much, but they do spend – apparel, shoes, backpacks, hiking poles, and more. Turkey Mountain hosts a number of running and cycling races which draw loads of money in the form of entry fees, and attract many out-of-town competitors who spend locally on food, gas, lodging and, of course, gear and apparel. Those are real dollars going into real cash registers in real businesses, and attached to it all are sales tax dollars which flow into the city’s coffers. Cash registers don’t ring on Turkey Mountain. But many of them around town ring because of Turkey Mountain.

Third, he doesn’t seem to appreciate Turkey Mountain’s value as a community asset. Tulsa has lots of places to eat and shop. I enjoy many of them. But few cities like Tulsa have a place where you can walk into the woods and see miles of it in a completely natural state. People hunger for this kind of thing. City parks are not the same, and not everyone can pack up and drive a couple of hours to a national forest or state park to be in nature. We have it here, within our city limits. This has amazing community health benefits, and when you’re looking to attract people and businesses to town, having an asset like Turkey Mountain – left in its natural state – is a big drawing card, especially to those young professionals looking for a place for their new start-up.

Fourth, he and his chief of staff don’t seem to understand that Turkey Mountain is not the same as 18th Street and Riverside Drive, where the Blue Rose restaurant is located. Hey, I love me some Blue Rose. But the restaurant sits in a developed, urbanized area and is right off a busy four-lane thoroughfare. It is true that it dovetails nicely with the paved trails of the northern River Parks system. But you can’t compare that part of River Parks – a manicured park area – to Turkey Mountain, which is intentionally left wild. It’s a bad analogy, and the mayor’s office should know better.

Lastly, such an idea has the same infrastructural and environmental problems that the Simon mall proposal had. More traffic on the steep hills and sharp curves of 61st Street and Elwood Avenue is a bad idea all around. Light pollution and litter would be an issue, denigrating the experience just so some diners could have a view. And the stormwater drainage from hard-surface parking lots would be problematic in keeping Turkey Mountain’s watershed clean.

Whether or not land acquisition for Turkey Mountain’s expansion becomes part of the Vision 2025 sales tax renewal plan is one thing. I’d love to see it, just as long as the land in question remains wild. But even if it is not on the ballot, it seems the mayor’s office is in need of a deeper education on this issue. Given how thoroughly that message was conveyed over the past 14 months, that seems like a mountain-sized task.

Want to let the mayor know how you feel? Send him a letter here.

Bob Doucette

Getting priced out of the walkable life

A 1920s-era high rise, the 320 South Boston Building, reflected on a more modern glass tower. The contrast of old-style art deco and modern architecture is beautiful.

A 1920s-era high rise, the 320 South Boston Building, reflected on a more modern glass tower. The contrast of old-style art deco and modern architecture in downtown Tulsa is beautiful.

Imagine this little scene:

You’re standing at the corner of a moderately busy street. People are all around, walking or biking to wherever it is they need to go that day, sunglasses on, phones in hand, and otherwise preoccupied while darting from one place to the next. Bike couriers zip by, carrying packages or fast-food deliveries. There are a couple of beggars roaming around, but they’re pretty harmless.

In any direction, you’re within a 10-minute walk from work, your favorite restaurants, a performing arts center and a convenience store. Also within a few hundred feet from your doorstep are destinations like your gym, neighborhood bars, pizza joints and all sorts of street-level businesses selling anything from jewelry to photocopies.

Once the work day ends,things quiet down, but life doesn’t stop entirely. Many of the buildings that once housed offices have been converted into apartments, evidence of which is seen by the mix of dog walkers mingling with kids skateboarding emptied sidewalks and lovers taking photographs by a colorfully lit fountain or a rustic brick wall.

Looming overhead are office towers: some modern, some boasting 1920s and 1930s-era Art Deco stone fixtures that are distinct to my home city.

This is my neighborhood, or it least it was. I moved here more than four years ago, taking a new job and a radically new tack toward how my daily life would look, snagging a reasonably priced apartment tucked away under the shadows of nearby high-rises.

For more than 15 years, I joined tens of millions of you who hop into metal boxes on wheels and while away hours every week to go to work, burning time and gas while fighting increasingly crowded highways and decreasingly patient fellow travelers. It was an expensive endeavor that went anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day, depending on which job I had at the time.

In my new home, things were different. I took advantage of a new trend here in Midwest, one in which developers turned empty spaces in downtown districts into living quarters. My 90-mile-a-day driving habit turned into a two-minute walking commute.

I learned more about Tulsa when I moved downtown. You get to know your community so much better on foot than you do behind the wheel. All those places you breeze by while driving are much more vibrant when you stroll by, unencumbered by the barrier of metal, glass and rubber. Walking or running, this fit into what I hoped life would become — more active, more outdoors, more connected. I grew to love it.

And so did a lot of other people. So much so that there are 13 other downtown residential projects underway right now, with almost every existing apartment in downtown Tulsa occupied, and a year-long waiting list for some of the more sought-after addresses.

Property owners, being the savvy entrepreneurs that they are, see the potential for making profits. One area where I run by often, called East Village, has a number of apartments and townhouses going up. Those townhouses have a starting price of $875,000. We’re not talking Denver, Chicago or even Houston here. This is Tulsa, of all places.

I have a hard time believing that someone would pay that much for a house here, but I should have also realized that someone smarter than me sees something I don’t. And I should also have seen what signs like this would mean for me.

All these people seeking what I sought — a walkable neighborhood, surrounded by all the good stuff to which suburbanites have to drive — would do what I did. They’d downsize, leave the ‘burbs and head to the city’s urban heart.

I’m a middle class guy. Not rich, not poor. A few bills, but nothing big. No extravagant habits and no car payments. But like most folks, I live paycheck to paycheck while putting back a a few dollars here and there. Saving some money on driving far less (I drive maybe once or twice a week) was one of the appeals to living here, mostly because I used to drop $250 or more on fuel every month. There were added costs — monthly parking fees, for example — but for awhile, it was a wash. Having 90 minutes of my life back was worth it.

But then it happened. And by it, I mean capitalism. Supply and demand. More people wanted to live here than could be housed. You know how this story ends.

In this case, it concludes with rent hikes (four in a year) and increased parking fees, as well as a few other ways that we all get nickel-and-dimed to death. With half a month’s salary disappearing into that cozy 650-square-foot pad on the 10th floor, it was time to go.

I won’t lie, it was sad. I came downtown to live in a place that had been, residentially speaking, forsaken for decades. White flight and the boom of the suburbs had robbed downtown areas across the country of people, and reclaiming that became a trendy, and in my mind, positive thing to do. A lot of us loved the idea of fleeing the sameness of the suburbs and opting out of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle that permeates the white-picket world. We wanted to own less stuff and live a little more. Walk more, and burn fewer dinosaur bones.

I should have known a lot of us would eventually get priced out. It would be a wicked irony if people like me, hoping to save a buck by being able to walk to work, would get beaten back into suburbia by high rents and an arsenal of other rising costs.

Fortunately, the new home is about a mile from the job. I could walk it if I chose, or bike it. So I won’t get sucked into the suburban maw just yet.

But I hope that the dream of living in a walkable community here in the heartland isn’t dead for people like me. I don’t begrudge the well-heeled for wanting to live where I lived. It’s a healthy, interesting an engaging way to do life. But if that life is reserved for the higher levels of the middle class and up, it would certainly feel like a loss.

Bob Doucette

How outdoor recreation gives reasons for hope in Red State America

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

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

If you want to know how important something is to people, just check out how much time, energy and money they spend on it. The upper end of that time/effort/money spectrum is of high importance. If something is out-of-sight and out-of-mind, you can bet on a bad case of no-one-cares.

This is important to consider when it comes to the outdoors, and how people relate to it. A population that spends a good amount of time outside is going to be a healthier one, and more in tune with their world. Conversely, people who languish too long inside don’t know their world, and often sink into illnesses ranging from heart disease to cancer to depression.

And an entire community caught on the wrong end of this scale is going to see those problems magnified.

I use the term “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” often when it comes to issues of conservation, and I don’t think it’s any accident that places where conservationism is an afterthought are some of the country’s unhealthiest. I see that here in my home state. Oklahoma is smack in the middle of stroke alley, with some of the highest rates of obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes in the U.S. Stoking the indoor life are our brutally hot summers. Networks of highways, huge subdivisions and a spiderweb of streets are designed to take us from one place to the next, planted in an office chair, the driver’s seat or on the couch, marinating in the same climate-controlled temperatures. Oklahoma’s metropolitan areas are some of the least walkable and most cyclist-unfriendly you’ll find.

A few green spaces are set aside, mostly for ball fields and playgrounds, but most of what used to be grasslands and forests gets cleared for housing developments and parking lots. Losing those wild lands means fewer trees and grasses to absorb potential floods, clean up polluted air and keep temperatures down. And so you get more heat, crappier air and more excuses to stay firmly rooted inside, away from the distressed rivers and creeks and dwindling woodlands that are seen as obstacles to progress and impediments to commerce. By design, we’re isolated from the outdoors, and by default, the environment. All the while, a community’s health keeps deteriorating.

This is a pretty grim picture, and it’s not unique to my home state. This is the case just about everywhere else, too. But even here, in Urban Sprawl America, there are signs of hope. And maybe of changing minds.

I’ve got some friends who, a few years ago, put together this audacious idea to have a weekend campout at the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness in Tulsa. Turkey Mountain is an island of intact woodlands surrounded by a sea of suburban sprawl in south Tulsa. It’s a favorite destination for mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers and nature enthusiasts, and a real gem for the city. You’re not allowed to camp there, though.

But in getting a special permit from the city to hold this campout, organizers figured they could lure a decent crowd of people to show up, pitch a tent, grill up some food and enjoy live music. And maybe hike or bike a few miles on the trails.

The success of the event – it’s grown every year so far – served as a reminder to me. I think when people make a conscious effort to make the outdoors visible and appealing, people will value it more. And in so doing, help their communities and even their own health.

TAKING THE INITIATIVE

Like I mentioned earlier, a few of my friends – Tyler Hanes, Ryan Howell and Matt Carver – came up with this campout idea. It eventually morphed into an annual fall event called BaseCamp, initially attracting a few hundred participants, but now growing into nearly 1,200.

Folks run, bike and hike during the day, or just hang out and listen to music at the tent sites, eat some grub and crack open a few cold ones. Families make a weekend of it. It’s a good time, capped off at night by a “glow hike” where campers head into the woods, glow sticks in hand, and form a long neon conga line that snakes through Turkey Mountain’s winding, rugged trails.

A group yoga session at this year's BaseCamp festival at Turkey Mountain. Organizers said up to 1,200 people attended this year's campout event. (BaseCamp Facebook page photo)

A group yoga session at this year’s BaseCamp festival at Turkey Mountain. Organizers said up to 1,200 people attended this year’s campout event. (BaseCamp Facebook page photo)

A reporter and a photographer from the local newspaper went there to check it out last weekend. I was taken aback by what one guy had to say.

“Anything that helps improve the general awareness of the environment is going to be a good thing for Oklahoma,” Isaac Rutel told the Tulsa World. Rutel and his family came up from the Oklahoma City suburb of Choctaw to enjoy the weekend at Turkey Mountain, about 90 minutes or so from their home.

Isaac gets it. By being out there, he can appreciate Turkey Mountain’s value, despite it being devoid of houses that generate property taxes and home sales, or strip malls that crank out service jobs and sales tax earnings.

My friend Ryan, an avid mountain biker, summed it up like this:

“It’s a great way to be introduced to the mountain — coming out and sleeping under the stars, hearing some bands, going for a hike in the afternoon,” he told the Tulsa World. “We want to keep Turkey (Mountain) preserved the way it is, and the more people we can get passionate about this place and the more people we can get to say, ‘I know Turkey and I love it,’ then the more, hopefully, we can help… get funding and keep this place alive.”

Keep in mind that none of these guys are the well-heeled, politically connected or otherwise high profile personalities you’d expect to launch something like this. They’re just a few guys who had an idea, tried it out, and made it work. They provided a good time, and the event has grown despite being planned on the second Saturday of the college football season, where most Okies are on the sofa channel-surfing through the games. Beyond a bit of fun, they’re also opening eyes. Ordinary guys, taking the initiative, and showing people the value of getting outside, getting moving, and preserving what little bit of real nature we have left in the city.

BEING HEARD

Turkey Mountain’s popularity has surged in recent years, going from a place infrequently visited to one of Tulsa’s most popular draws. Hundreds and even thousands go there every week, and it’s host to a number of trail running and mountain bike races.

But over the past year or so, it was also a source of controversy.

Last year, shopping mall developer Simon Property Group announced plans to build an outlet mall on what, to them, appeared to be a promising piece of real estate near U.S. 75.

But it also happened to be on Turkey Mountain’s western edge, and just south of a YMCA kids’ camp. The plan would have wiped out a chunk of trails and several acres of woodlands, to be replaced by low-slung buildings and concrete. The “in nature” experience at the kids camp would have been blunted severely with a mall looming overhead at the top of a hill.

One of the trails at Turkey Mountain. Enjoying time outside and in nature is growing in its appeal for Tulsa residents, part of the reason why opposition to an outlet mall on the western edge of Turkey Mountain drew so much opposition.

One of the trails at Turkey Mountain. Enjoying time outside and in nature is growing in its appeal for Tulsa residents, part of the reason why opposition to an outlet mall on the western edge of Turkey Mountain drew so much opposition.

The land was privately owned, but its proximity to the rest of Turkey Mountain drew the ire of a big chunk of the city. A grassroots group – the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition – started, with its initial goal of at least forming a voice to prevent further encroachment into the woods.

But within weeks, it became clear that the group would go further, and actively lobbied against approval of the project. An online petition gained more than 8,000 signatures, and “town hall” events to discuss the mall proposal were packed houses, with most in attendance voicing opposition to the developer’s plan.

The mall was something the city and Simon, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, wanted. But prompted by the TUWC, the people flatly said “no.” Simon pulled out of its deal on that parcel of land and is building elsewhere in the metro area, and for now, the land that had been pegged for development remains as it was.

The bigger benefit, however, is manifold. The community received an organization that promoted the value of wild green space, and with that, volunteer efforts to clean up the forest, repair trails and scour the creeks. Plans are underway to do more, including purchasing land to protect what’s there for the future.

Conservationist advocacy, it would seem, has allowed the community to learn more about what it has, and now that it’s finally on the radar, people suddenly care. Turkey Mountain is no longer out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

CIVIC LEADERSHIP

The beginnings of Turkey Mountain go back a few decades. City leaders back then decided to set aside that patch of land for recreational purposes, and in doing so intentionally tried to keep it as wild as possible. That sort of foresight has led to what it’s become now, a premier outdoor recreation destination not only for locals, but also for people from far outside the city.

But a more recent example of community leadership – and a stunning one at that – comes from down the turnpike.

If you go to Oklahoma City, you’re going to notice a couple of things. First, it’s flat. Very flat. That’s not a knock, it’s just a fact of building a community in the heart of the Southern Plains.

And second, aside from a few manmade lakes, it’s fairly dry. The further west you go in Oklahoma, the skinnier the rivers get.

Now for the stunner: Oklahoma City is home to the U.S. Olympic Rowing Training Center.

How does this happen in a town with a river that city crews used to mow during the summer?

In the early 1990s, city leaders proposed and voters approved a sales tax program to fund a number of projects. A new baseball stadium, an indoor arena, a canal through downtown and a collection of other projects were part of the mix, helping fuel an ongoing renaissance in that city.

But also part of the plan was a series of dams that put more water in the North Canadian River just south of downtown. Now instead of a muddy trickle, a long, broad stretch of water – dubbed the Oklahoma River – flows by, inviting water sports enthusiasts to its shores.

The Boathouse District near downtown Oklahoma City. (Boathouse District Facebook page photo)

The Boathouse District near downtown Oklahoma City. (Boathouse District Facebook page photo)

The response was almost immediate. A couple Oklahoma colleges created rowing teams, holding their practices and competitions there. Boathouses were built, as were bike trails. A triathlon was held. And ultimately, the city was able to recruit the U.S. Olympic program to plant its rowing training center in the middle of Oklahoma.

Where none existed, civic leaders created a water sports culture, one that is growing in popularity. People rent flatwater kayaks. Recreational rowing teams have formed. OKC has even become the scene of annual dragon boat races. The Boathouse District has become one of Oklahoma City’s best outdoor recreation assets.

I won’t say every Oklahoma City resident is now a rowing fanatic, but there are more people being active on the water now then there were before the river project was completed, and demand seems to be rising. Up next for the river is another man-made water feature, a $45.2 million whitewater kayak and rafting course.

Whitewater kayaking? In Oklahoma City? It’s going to happen. The project is under construction, and if past success is any indicator of future results you might see another improbable water sports story unfold in Oklahoma’s capital city.

An artist's rendering of the whitewater park being built near downtown Oklahoma City. (Boathouse District Facebook page photo)

An artist’s rendering of the whitewater park being built near downtown Oklahoma City. (Boathouse District Facebook page photo)

The lesson here is clear: When government takes the health of its people seriously, good things can happen. I’m not sure anyone outside of Oklahoma City would have pegged that community as a burgeoning hub for rowing and paddling sports. I’m sure there were plenty of doubters in Oklahoma City itself. But there it is. City leaders committed to an idea, and more of its people are getting outside and active as a result.

And who knows? Maybe some of these OKC kayakers and rowers will search for wilder places to ply their skills, and in so doing, learn more about the value and importance of healthy waterways.

LOOKING AHEAD

It would be a stark reversal of culture if Oklahoma boating enthusiasts became advocates for protecting America’s wild streams and rivers, but stranger things have happened. I can only point to my own life, having been exposed to nature at a young age and frequently since then, and how those experiences have shaped my views on conservation and health.

In my mind, they’re linked.

I’m under no illusion that places like Oklahoma, or Texas, or anywhere else in Red State country are going to become hotbeds for conservationism. And I don’t expect these states’ health woes to correct themselves overnight.

But think on this: In Tulsa, you have an asset that is widely regarded as one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the country, a highly regarded trail running haunt, and a shining example of what an urban green space can be.

In Oklahoma City, you have a relatively new but nationally known center for human-powered water sports that is growing.

These are things you’d expect in the mountain communities of the Appalachians, the Rockies, the Sierras or the Cascades. Certainly not in the flatlands. And yet here they are.

These are reasons for optimism. People care enough to speak up for the outdoors and outdoor recreation, even to the extent of paying a little extra in terms of tax dollars. Tens of thousands of people are taking charge of their health outside, on their feet, on a bike or in a boat.

And most importantly is this: The more time folks spend outdoors, the more they’ll appreciate the outdoors, as what was once more of an abstract concept becomes front-and-center in their lives. However we can make that happen – as individuals, as advocates, or as elected leaders – is crucial not only for the people we live with, but for the health of the land itself.

Learn more about the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition, including how to donate, here. To learn more about Turkey Mountain, go here. And to find information about the Oklahoma City Boathouse District, go here.

Bob Doucette

Turkey Mountain update: What it means now that Simon has abandoned its original outlet mall plans

An endangered view at Turkey Mountain. Let's preserve the good.

An amazing view at Turkey Mountain. Let’s preserve the good.

I’m going to say something that might shock some of you.

Welcome to the Tulsa market, Simon Premium Outlet Malls.

That’s a phrase a lot of us were more than willing to say, provided that the real estate giant did not plop its planned outlet mall on Turkey Mountain. But in a huge turn of developments, reports have surfaced that Simon has changed its plans, now intent on building its massive retail project on an already cleared piece of property in the Tulsa suburb of Jenks, several miles south and well away from Tulsa’s last great green space, Turkey Mountain.

BACKGROUND

Simon announced plans to build an outlet mall on a piece of property along U.S. Highway 75 and 61st Street in southwest Tulsa, land that just happened to be at the southwest corner of Turkey Mountain on a piece of privately owned property. The land overlooks a YMCA kids camp and adjoins a large section of wooded wild land, enjoyed by hikers, runners, cyclists and nature enthusiasts. The thought of having such a large project built there (80+ shops) drew heavy community opposition, with worries over loss of trails, stormwater pollution, erosion, loss of wildlife habitat, traffic safety problems and costs all being mentioned.

The outcry was heard by a number of Tulsa City Council members, many of whom voiced skepticism toward the viability and value of having a mall there. The Tulsa YMCA also made its position clear, that the project as proposed was not acceptable given its proximity to the Westside YMCA kids camp. Public forums about the project were one-sided, with large majorities of those attending saying they didn’t want a mall built on the west side of Turkey Mountain.

On Wednesday, a report in the Tulsa World, citing the Jenks mayor and city manager as well as documents from Simon Property Group, showed that the company now intends to build in Jenks, just off the Creek Turnpike. Simon has gone so far to enter into a contract with landowners of the new site in Jenks.

WHAT THIS MEANS

For now, the property at Turkey Mountain will remain undeveloped. Although Simon still has a contract on the tract, the focus of the company has changed. Simon has clearly seen that it will not have public or City Council support for doing what it wants to do at Turkey Mountain. It looks like momentum for Simon’s project has swung south.

The land in question, however, is still in play. Just because Simon wants out does not mean the land’s owners are going to do nothing. Unless conservation is their stated goal, people don’t buy land just to let it sit there. My assumption is that it’s still for sale. So while Simon is focusing elsewhere (and any future investor would face the same hurdles Simon faced), that doesn’t mean it’s safe.

There are efforts underway to take the parcel off the market for good. The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition, which spearheaded efforts to preserve the land, is now an officially recognized non-profit organization that can accept monetary, tax-deductible donations. One of the coalition’s goals is to buy the land if it becomes available. It’s valued at somewhere around $3.2 million. It’s a tall order to raise that much money, but the TUWC has been fighting — and winning — uphill battles since it was formed last fall. If you want to donate, here is a link to the coalition’s GuFundMe site; a link for larger donations through the Tulsa Community Foundation; and for direct donations, you can go to or mail donations to Yorktown Bank, 2222 S. Utica Place, #350, Tulsa, OK, 74114.

This is a big win for conservation. Normally, conservation efforts fall short in Red State America, particularly when it comes to conservation vs. economic development. It doesn’t get any redder than Tulsa. But when people were able to see all the issues at stake — preserving a natural space, promoting outdoor recreation and health, valuing quality of life over tax revenues, just to name a few — they overwhelmingly sided with conservation. There is plenty of room in and around Tulsa for economic development, but very little space given to places like Turkey Mountain. Tulsans should be proud for having seen this and, more importantly, acting on it. The message of many voices is strong, even when the goal is a little outside what is normal within the region’s prevailing politics.

This is a big win for Tulsa. Certain people at City Hall may disagree (on the grounds that the city is losing out on potential tax revenues), but in the long run, this is good for the city. Turkey Mountain is a tremendous asset for Tulsa. It’s a draw not only for Tulsa-area residents, but for those living outside the metro area and even outside Oklahoma. People go there to enjoy the trails, coming from all over the country. They spend money here. And for people looking to relocate, having an asset like Turkey Mountain is just the sort of thing that makes the city look more attractive. Preserving and even enhancing places like Turkey Mountain is critical in terms of recruiting young professionals and even entire companies. Very few cities in the Midwest and the South have such a place. We do. Turkey Mountain is a huge selling point. Protecting it should be a priority.

But what about those potential lost tax dollars? It’s not that cut-and-dry, given that Simon wanted a large tax increment finance district set up to help fund construction of the mall and the substantial infrastructure improvement that would be needed. Given the uncertainty of the plan’s success at that location, the possibility exists that the sales taxes earned at the mall might not offset the city’s costs. Even so, Tulsa can still get behind another outlet mall project on the city’s east side. If economic development really is that big of a priority, that’s where City Hall’s attention should go. If the city can help that project succeed, it will get the new revenues it seeks and enhance quality of life by protecting its natural assets.

Keep in mind, nothing is set in stone. All kinds of wheeling and dealing can change things on the turn of a dime. But this week’s news should be welcomed as a positive development and be seen as a call for further action. The next step is solidifying the future of the all the property in Tulsa’s urban wilderness. Act accordingly!

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Bob Doucette

Turkey Mountain update: Positive vibes for an outlet mall not on Turkey Mountain

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Not long ago (a little over a week ago), public officials and representatives of an outlet mall development company held a public forum to discuss building a huge new shopping center. A good number of people showed up, and public opinion was strongly slanted in one direction.

The people there were overwhelmingly for it.

Contrast this to the past couple of public forums talking about an outlet mall in Tulsa, where sentiment toward a certain project was overwhelmingly negative.

What’s the difference?

Citizen views differed by location. Yes, we’re talking about two different projects, and you know what they say about real estate: Location is everything.

The project met with so much opposition is one promoted by Simon Properties. It’s located on the west side of Turkey Mountain, something that has drawn strong criticism from trail users, conservationists, nearby residents and the public at large. The promise of new jobs, more shopping and tax revenues has swayed relatively few people who see an outlet mall at that location as a bad fit, something that will cause serious issues in terms of traffic, litter, pollution and overall degradation of one of the few natural settings left in the city.

The project receiving so much support happens to be on the opposite side of town, in east Tulsa, an already developed, urban area where jobs and shopping are needed just as badly as they are in west Tulsa. The plan, put forward by the Horizon Group, has met no opposition. Whereas elected city officials are divided on building at Turkey Mountain (with several voicing opposition), only positive reaction has come from their ranks and the public on the east Tulsa proposal.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Those of us following these developments understand the city needs to grow its tax base, and a large retail shopping center is a good way to do it. Jobs and sales tax revenues are plum prizes. But city officials need to understand a couple of things.

First, they need to listen to the people. Very few in the public have voiced support for Simon’s proposal at Turkey Mountain (though they wouldn’t mind if Simon built somewhere else). Large numbers have turned out at public forums voicing opposition. For the east Tulsa proposal, only positive vibes and no controversy. If you’re an elected official, this contrast should be something of which to take note.

Second, they need to weigh the costs versus the benefits. Both proposals would provide jobs and revenue, but one proposal would do so at great cost to its surroundings — natural woodlands, a prime trail system and an established YMCA kids camp known for providing children with activities in a natural, non-urban setting. Sometimes an extra buck or two is not worth it. The other proposal would blend in. The east Tulsa project would be built in an area that is already developed and urbanized. Instead of detracting from its surroundings, it would likely spruce things up. And not a single tree would be uprooted.

Which project gets approval is ultimately up to the City Council. So I’d ask city councilors this: What will you choose? Where will you throw you support? Who will you listen to?

I’d keep in mind there is a possibility that  retailers will flock instead to a third project outside Tulsa’s city limits, one being fronted by the Cherokee Nation in Catoosa, next door to the tribe’s substantial and successful casino development.

Clock’s ticking, folks. Tulsa does not have to choose between conservation and economic development. It can have both, plus all the benefits of new shopping and an expanding culture of outdoor recreation. All you have to do is look and listen.

As for the rest of us: Write and call city councilors and let them know how you feel. And sign the petition. Your voice matters.

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Bob Doucette