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

Common sense can prevent a pedestrian ban on Oklahoma City trails

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

There’s some good news and some bad news coming out of Oklahoma City.

The good news: Much like many communities across the country (including my hometown of Tulsa), more people are spending time on trails to hike, run or ride bikes. This is a good trend for urban and suburban communities, which for decades have been zoned and sectioned to death, leaving residents stuck with seas of rooftops with the occasional park thrown in. Trail systems in our cities are getting more people back in touch with the natural world, as opposed to the more sanitized version of the outdoors that we normally see.

Now the bad news: Friction between different trail users has caused city officials in Oklahoma City to propose banning pedestrians from Bluff Creek Park, as popular place for local trail users. In doing so, they’re hoping to avoid accidents between people on foot and those on bikes.

According to this recent report, no one is happy with this. Runners and hikers feel like they’re being unfairly targeted, and cyclists feel like they’re being turned into a public safety scapegoat. All sides believe the proposal was rushed, without getting input on solutions from people who use the trails. The matter is being brought up at an Oklahoma City Parks Commission meeting on Wednesday.

When I look at this, I do it from the vantage point of someone who uses a busy urban trail system regularly. Here in Tulsa, we have a couple: Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area in south Tulsa, and the trails on the west side of Chandler Park, in west Tulsa. In the former, our users are runners, hikers, cyclists and equestrians. In the latter, a lot of hikers, runners and in one area, rock climbers.

I’m most often at Turkey Mountain, and it is by far the busier of the two trail systems. It’s also become more popular every year. And yet its users manage to get by just fine without one specific group being told to stay away. (One small counterpoint, however – Turkey Mountain is a much larger trail system than Bluff Creek Park.)

So, when I look at the proposal floating around Oklahoma City, it seems like the solution was long on overreach and short on common sense. When it comes to common sense, execution is in the hands of the trail users. So here are some suggestions:

First, people need to keep their ears and eyes open. Be listening and looking for the sounds of bikes or pedestrians and don’t get too lost in the moment in what you’re doing.

Second, it’s far easier for the person on foot to give way to a rider. Do that and avoid a lot of confusion, and take care to give way to the person going downhill.

Third, if you have dogs, keep them leashed. I know it’s more fun for the pups to be off-leash, and maybe they’re trained to obey voice commands very well. But you have more control with they’re leashed, especially when a cyclist is rounding a corner.

Fourth, if you’re on a bike, verbally announce yourself if you’re coming up behind people on foot and slow down.

Fifth, lose the earbuds. In tighter spaces with trees obstructing views, you need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. This applies whether you’re on foot or on the saddle. A compromise might be having an earbud in only one ear, keeping the other free to hear outside noises. But I’d say it’s better to go without.

It should be noted that the proposal to make the trail system for mountain bikers only came as a result of a user survey, one in which less than a third of respondents wanted to ban pedestrians, and less than 2 percent had reported an accident with another user. And yet, the pedestrian ban is what’s being floated as a result of the survey.

Oklahoma City parks planners would do well to avoid discouraging trail usage from its residents, which is exactly what this proposal would do. We need more people getting outside and moving, not less. It sounds like what is needed here is a strong effort from the city and trail user groups to educate people on how to be safe when they’re on the trails, and to learn a little trail etiquette. Banning entire groups of trail users is overkill.

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

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

What the evolution of local conservation looks like

Group picture before the work day starts. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Group picture before the work day starts. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

I can remember a day when we would do cleanup and trail maintenance days at Turkey Mountain when there might have been a couple dozen of us out there. And we were dang pleased with the turnout.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and we routinely draw well over a hundred people coming out for a few hours on a Saturday to pick up trash, haul dirt, spread seeds and trim back limbs that block the trails. Real grunt work, but more people seem to be happy to do it.

We had one of those days last weekend. The morning was chilly and bright, and it warmed up nicely as the day wore on. If our turnout would have been low, I was have understood it — gorgeous outdoor days in late winter are usually hard to find, and this one was about as good as it gets.

The crew heading out. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

The crew heading out. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

But still, the volunteers came. Teams headed out, loppers and garbage bags in hand, to scour the trails of trash and do some trimming. High school kids, college groups, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and just about anyone else you could think of showed up looking for a job to do. We shored up a needy section of trail, which meant a lot of time with shovels, tampers and wheelbarrows.

Cleanup days at Turkey Mountain were once the sole project of Tulsa’s River Parks Authority, which has jurisdiction over Turkey Mountain. But they’ve gotten a partner over the last couple of years in the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition.

If you’ve been reading this blog for very long, you know who the TUWC is. If not, a quick explainer…

Yours truly even did some stuff. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Yours truly even did some stuff. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

The TUWC formed when it was announced that a developer planned to build an outlet mall on a section of the western fringe of Turkey Mountain. So at its outset, the TUWC was the voice rallying the outdoor community and Tulsa residents in general to oppose the plan, which would have leveled dozens of acres of woodlands and created substantial erosion, pollution and overall degradation to the land. TUWC’s arguments proved successful, and the developer moved on. Better still, the section of land in question has been set aside to be kept free of commercial development, allowed to once again become part of the urban wilderness area at Turkey Mountain. Score one for outdoor enthusiasts.

More trail rebuilding work. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

More trail rebuilding work. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

But there are side benefits to this effort as well. The TUWC made a conscious effort to not just be a group opposing something. It wanted to be for something, namely, preserving and promoting urban wild spaces like Turkey Mountain. As part of that, the TUWC got involved with these cleanup days, leveraging its visibility in the community to rally people to the task.

The results have been stunning. As I said before, 25 to 30 people at past cleanup days was considered a pretty good turnout. Since TUWC’s creation, participation has more than quadrupled.

Re-seeding the grounds near the trailhead. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Re-seeding the grounds near the trailhead. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

TUWC’s vocal presence going back to the fall of 2014 had a major impact on preserving green space. But it also elevated the public’s knowledge of what Turkey Mountain was, why it’s important, and what you can do there. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I see far more people hiking, biking and running there than what I witnessed back in 2011 when I first moved to Tulsa. Recent surveys show that visitors to Turkey Mountain outnumber those visiting some of the city’s most popular tourist draws on any given weekend.

So we know there are more users of the park. But we also know that there are more people willing to invest their time and energy not just in enjoying it, but caring for it. This speaks well of the city’s residents and the future of conservation in northeast Oklahoma. It also points toward a continuing mission that goes far beyond an opposition campaign. I have to say, I like that trend.

Bob Doucette

Waterlogged: When it’s time to give the trails a break

My favorite place to run, but maybe now is not the best time to be there.

My favorite place to run, but maybe now is not the best time to be there.

This is the time of year when I would like to transition my long runs to the trails. I’ve got two trail races I’m eyeing over the next couple of months, and it makes sense to put those big miles on the dirt tracks of the woods.

But there is a problem. As it turns out, 2015 was the wettest year in Oklahoma history, capped off by an extraordinarily heavy weekend of rain over the Christmas holiday. Adding to that was some rain and snow over the past couple of days.

My local trail running haunt, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, is saturated. The last time I ran there, only the highest trail atop a ridge crest was halfway dry. Everything else was anything from muddy to flooded.

Mud and standing water is a de facto badge of pride for trail runners. Trail running is tougher than road running, mostly because the paths trail runners take don’t avoid elevation gains, traverse sketchy terrain and force runners to tackle the elements on their terms. Part of that includes mud.

I’m OK with that. Especially when it comes to races, rotten route conditions add a little spice to the event.

But there comes a time when you have to think bigger. The places where I run are pretty busy, and not just with runners. Cyclists, hikers and other trail users frequent my local trails by the hundreds every day, at a minimum. All that use has an impact on trails under the best of conditions. Add enough rain to the mix and trail erosion and degradation is greatly accelerated.

So when Saturday’s programmed long run came up, I stayed off the dirt and hit the pavement.

I know one person won’t cause much damage. Neither will 10. But hundreds will when the trails are in such poor condition, as they are now. And with so much rain behind us, it may be a bit before they dry out to the point where erosion and other damage is slowed.

As a trail runner, I care about the places I run. I care enough to get active in protecting the places those trails cross. I want to make sure the trail system is cleaned of trash, protected from urbanization and maintained in a sustainable way. I’ve even learned a little bit about trail restoration along the way.

But I also know that part of protecting those trails can be more passive. In their current state, my presence will likely add to deeper ruts and other associated harm that comes from my weight digging into the mud via my feet.

It’s also key to understand how many runners, hikers and even some cyclists react when confronted with a big pool of water in middle of the trail. Most try to sidestep it, to avoid getting their feet wet and to preserve those pristine kicks from the dingy stains of muddy water. Never mind that the edges of the trail are also likely to be very muddy, and that going around mud puddles causes even more damage, which is why we are told to run through the middle of the mess in the first place. But human nature is what it is.

So while I take a little pride in coming home from a trail run with mud splattered all over me, I also understand that maybe now it’s a little too muddy, a little too wet, and a bit too fragile for me. Not everyone will share this conviction, and I understand that. But it is something we should consider.

Maybe next weekend it will be different. But for now, I’ll grudgingly pound pavement and give my trails a break.

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