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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How your community is probably killing you

Safe, quiet, peaceful -- and slowly contributing to your early demise.

Safe, quiet, peaceful — and slowly contributing to your early demise.

One thing that concerns me today is how much people move these days. Or should I say, how little people move.

I love the stories of friends I know who have broken loose from sedentary lifestyles and found not only healthy living, but a sense of empowerment and a bigger world available to them.

The father of three who dropped 50 pounds and got his hypertension in check.

The woman, beaten down by a lot of what life has thrown at her, doing her first 5K. Which turned into a 10K. A half marathon. And then the full 26.2.

A woman who tried on her kid’s discarded hiking boots, hiked to the top of Pikes Peak and developed a habit that, 60 pounds later, has turned her into a lean, mean hiking machine.

But I know for each of these stories, there are scores of others in which people do not succeed in getting healthy. Surrounding them are forces that conspire to keep them inactive, eating junk and sleeping erratically. Awaiting them are obesity, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and premature degradation of their musculo-skeletal system.

Call it death by underuse.

There are a lot of factors in this. Admittedly, some people choose to slowly kill themselves via lifestyle choices. But in other instances, things are done to us that work us into an oddly stressful state of physical inactivity.

One of those things: Our cities.

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Different historical and socio-economic factors have determined how these communities are designed and grow. What is mostly true, especially in the Midwest and West, is that our cities are compartmentalized in ways that inhibit the free flow of people moving in things other than our cars. Let’s take a tour so you can see what I mean.

Here is where we work.

wherewework

Here is where we shop.

shopping

Here is where we entertain ourselves.

bricktown

And this is where we live.

suburb2

And this is how we get to all these places, which are often disconnected from each other, sometimes at distances of 10, 20, or even 50 miles or more.

traffic

For a lot of us, that means sitting in a car for anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes a day to get to and from work; 8 to 12 hours a day sitting at work; 10 to 30 minutes each way to go shopping; 10 to 60 minutes going somewhere to sit and eat, then jump back in the car to sit and watch a two-hour show; and when it’s all done and over with, plop down at home in front of the TV and spend the last waking moments of our day sitting.

By the way, sitting a lot is not good for you.

A lot of us, in an attempt to escape these confines, buy a house on land in the country, with the thought of being able to relax in peace and quiet, in nature, and away from the stresses of battling city congestion. The reality is that it usually just increases our drive times, because a home in the exburbs or out in the country is just another compartment of a life filled with disconnected compartments in which navigating the to-and-from requires more time on your butt, driving.

This is the reality of modern, zoned development. Want an ice cream cone? Get in your car and drive. Need to pick up some groceries? Get a bite to eat? Meet someone for a brew or two? Drive time is involved. And on Sundays, a lot of us pile the family into the car (big SUV?) and drive a good ways to church, sometimes to buildings that resemble malls, complete with sprawling parking lots to handle all those wheeled metal boxes toting the faithful to their respective houses of worship.

Notice I haven’t even mentioned things like going to the gym for a lift or heading somewhere to go run run or ride your bike. Most times, you’ve got to drive to those places, too, because neighborhood fitness centers have been replaced by big gyms in strip malls and shopping districts, many neighborhoods aren’t pedestrian-friendly and most parks aren’t designed for much else outside of playgrounds or your kids’ baseball/softball/soccer games in mind.

Now picture instead a community that grows more organically, a place where you work, shop and play is all mixed together, with most everything within walking distance. Imagine being able to walk out your door, stroll a few blocks and be at the doorstep of your favorite restaurant or pub. Your gym is three doors down. Your office is 10 minutes on foot, or 5 minutes by bike. Your community is a place with quick access to walkable, runnable, bike-able paths where you can get a good sweat. Green spaces are designed for everyone in mind, regardless of age.

If you lived in that kind of a community, you’d not only save a ton of money on gas, but you’d move your body a lot more. Our bodies are designed to move, not sit. Chances are, you’d also be a lot more connected to your community, as being in its midst on foot tends to feel a lot different than being inside your car – itself a tiny compartment of life, complete with its own climate, entertainment and communications.

Our communities are already built, so it’s not like we’re going to tear them down and rebuild them into some pedestrian utopia. But I have to wonder what, if any, steps community leaders will be taking in the future to help their cities and towns evolve into something healthier for their people.

We need to move more. We need to feel more physical connection to the places where we live, something beyond being the place where we mow a yard once a week and go to sleep at night. I can’t blame people for wanting to live in affordable homes, places with good schools and communities that are safe, peaceful and quiet. I just wish more of them were places that weren’t making us sicker.

It’s something to think about. Maybe if you agree, you can demand better. And if not, maybe it’s a good time to re-examine where we live, and find somewhere that might help you live longer – and live better.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Finding the value in green spaces

In the short history of this little blog, you may have noticed that sometimes I’ll write spur-of-the-moment pieces about different things I see or otherwise experience on my runs. I choose to run outside (treadmills and tracks generally don’t do much for me) because seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling the outdoors is what makes running interesting to me. Well, that and the fitness benefits.

But something I have to say is how underappreciated our public spaces are.

I don’t want to go into a public policy debate, or revisit the whole Turkey Mountain issue. This is more of an appreciation.

The other day I went out to Tulsa’s River Parks. This is a good place for long weekend runs or otherwise a pleasant flat track to get some miles in. It was about 65 degrees with a slight south breeze and overcast.

I didn’t go out with an agenda. I’d get a few miles, maybe more. I’ve found running like this doesn’t do much for achieving training goals, but it frees me to absorb what going on around me.

River Parks follow the banks of the Arkansas River, leading from downtown Tulsa to the city’s far south side.

So it’s basically one long, very skinny green space with one wide spot that is home to a rugby field and various stations on a really lengthy Frisbee golf course. A divided, paved trail gives ample room for runners and walkers on one side and bikers on the other.

One would think the cloud cover would shoo some people away, but that wasn’t the case. People were out there in droves. People on bikes and skateboards. Folks running solo and on groups. People walking their dogs or taking their kids out for s stroll.

Visitors can cross to the west bank on a busy bridge on the north and a pedestrian bridge to the south. Sometimes you’ll see anglers trying to see what they can catch out of Zink Lake, which is really just a wider spot in the river created by a dam. Rowers also like to come to Zink Lake.

There are benches and water fountains about every mile or so, and a pretty big plaza at 41st Street where there are restrooms, a small water park and a play area for kids.

The city has done something interesting, in allowing a restaurant to exist within the park area. It’s been carefully integrated into the park so that people can freely use it without interfering with the business and vice versa. The business also has a seasonal outdoor bar area.

After my run, I went to the lawn just north of that bar to stretch. A couple dozen people were outside enjoying a drink and just hanging out. They had Bob Marley playing over the sound system about the time when I spotted a beefy dude, sans shirt and with long dreadlocks, skateboarding by.

There were kids everywhere, usually with parents in tow. Sometimes I’d spy a group of skateboarding or biking teens riding by.

What struck me is that with the exception of the people spending money at the bar or the restaurant, everyone else here was having a good time, and doing so for free. Yep, aside from the gas burned getting here, folks were able to come to the park, spend a few hours having some fun outside, and maybe even get some exercise without spending a dime.

A family matinee will run you some pretty good coin, particularly if you hit the snack bar. Same is true of a baseball or basketball game. And theme parks go even higher.

I think that’s what I love about public spaces. Obviously, I like people watching. But the real value here is that you have a community investing in something without the expectation of a financial return, but deeming it worthwhile because the real “return on investment” is public well-being.

My hope is more people see how worthwhile green spaces are. I see them as excellent places to train, but also as mini-escapes. Many others find other, equally worthy uses for them.

So go ahead. Step out of the car and take off on foot. There’s no admission, just a willingness to get out and move.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088