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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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