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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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

Memorial Day on the trails: An agenda-less run

No training goals. No need for speed. Not a care for mileage, pace or whatever. I hit the trails this weekend with no agenda at all.

I worked most of Memorial Day weekend, so there wasn’t going to be any epic outings for me. But I did have enough time to disappear into the woods and hills at Turkey Mountain for a little while.

It’s late spring, and it’s a little like a jungle out there.

So green.

So green.

Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of people out there, at least not in the areas where I ran. I’m good with that.

Let me see more singletrack like this, please.

Let me see more singletrack like this, please.

While there weren’t many people, it doesn’t mean I was alone. Plenty of wildlife. The squirrels seems to be the noisiest, crashing through underbrush whenever I approached. Lizards and snakes aren’t nearly as careless. And turtles seem to be the quietest.

A trail runner who was slower than me.

A trail runner who was slower than me.

All in all, the forest was ridiculously scenic. That aspect of trail running is one of its biggest allures, and yet can easily be lost when you’re pushing hard. I took my time and savored the scenes, and still got a good sweat out of the deal. I’ll call that a double-win.

This view does not suck.

This view does not suck.

There is a good chance your weekend rocked a little more than mine. But that’s OK. The lesson here is to take what life gives you. If it’s a month, a week, three days or a couple of hours, take it if you can. See where your feet take you. And don’t forget to look around.

Bob Doucette

The next step: Reclaiming more of Turkey Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Doucette

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

Four things that make a great trail race

The results (aftermath?) of a good trail race.

The results (aftermath?) of a good trail race.

I did a trail race last weekend, one of my favorites that’s right in town. It’s the Snake Run, a unique race where you run as many miles as you can for either three or six hours. Winners are based on who covers the most ground on a winding loop through some of the mellower single track on Turkey Mountain in Tulsa. Some people come out and really grind out a lot of miles (the gamesmanship with these folks is something to behold), while others grab a few loops, say hey to friends and have a mellower good time. All types are welcomed.

The passage of time sometimes makes it easy to forget why these smaller trail races are so great. I took some stock on that subject during this one. And after running for almost six hours, I had plenty of time to contemplate it. So here are some thoughts…

The race has to be interesting. People will come back to races that go through fantastic scenery, provide a great challenge or attract excellent competition. If you’re the type who wants — and finds — all three, you’ll probably mark that event on your calendar every year.

It has to be well-run. Problems with timing, course management, etc. are sure-fire ways to have people not return. If you have a race director who runs a tight ship, everyone is happy, the race gets a good reputation and more people come back year after year.

You have to have good aid stations. The best trail running aid stations are a sight to behold. Trail runners and ultra runners know what competitors want and need. You won’t see aid stations with only water, sports drinks and power gels. You’re going to see all kinds of salty, or sweet, and definitely tasty food choices to keep you powered through your run on a good trail race aid station. You might even see some beer or liquor, just to keep things interesting. At one aid station this weekend, a volunteer saw the salt lines on my tech shirt, snagged a salt tablet and made sure I downed it with some water. My friends, that’s how an aid station is done.

You’ve got to feel the love. This one is harder to nail down. But it starts at the top, from the RD to the volunteers, and to the runners themselves. Friendliness, encouragement, high-fives and good times when it’s over are what get people coming back for more. I’ve always got that at the Snake Run (runners, fast and slow, saying “good job!” or “nice going!” to each other as they passed by was frequent). On my last loop, me and a runner from Missouri chatted it up, and it made the pain subside for awhile. The trail running community is pretty awesome, and if you run the type of race that attracts these kind of folks, you’ll only build onto the sport.

There are worse ways to spend the day. (Jessica Wiley photo)

There are worse ways to spend the day. (Jessica Wiley photo)

So those are some of my ideas, and I can tell you that the Snake Run checks all the boxes for me. That’s why I’ve run it four years straight.

What makes a great trail race for you? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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