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 look back at 2017, and choosing the chase the good

This was a good day. (Jordan Doucette photo)

In the past, I’ve done these year-in-review posts where I examine some of the things I’ve seen and done. Last year, I took a different tack, instead encouraging folks to take stock in the good things that happened in an otherwise rough year.

Without question, 2017 was an extension of the chaos of 2016. I don’t want to rehash what I already wrote, as those words still apply. But it would do some good to at least look back at the visuals of 2017. When I see these images, it turns out 2017 wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt.

A lot of what was good was tied to places I went. A friend of mine from Kansas City, Craig Cook, was good enough to meet me at Magazine Mountain for an overnight camping trip and a couple of days of hiking on Arkansas’ highest point.

North rim cliffs at Magazine Mountain, Ark.

What a great mix if fun that was. We only scratched the surface, but got in some short day hikes plus a longer, wilder hike through the Ouachita National Forest to the top of the mountain. It’s good to have an adventure buddy to prod you to see new places.

Later in the year, there was a trip out west. There was a lot to see in western Oklahoma, northern New Mexico and in the mountains of Colorado.

Storm clouds form over the Gloss Mountains near Woodward, Okla.

Gloss Mountains State Park in northwestern Oklahoma offers some unique scenery I’d like to explore more.

Ruins of a mill in the Valle Vidal of New Mexico.

I’ve always been a fan of New Mexico. A few days there earned some prime scenery and good hiking in the Valle Vidal near Cimarron. Again, only scratched the surface. This is a huge area, and west of there is more exploring to be had near Wheeler Peak.

And then it was on to Colorado…

Coming off Cupid, heading toward Grizzly Peak D near Loveland Pass, Colo.

For the past three years, I’ve made a point to go to Loveland Pass and hike the peaks there. A couple more 13ers in the bag, but plenty left to do when I return.

Once that was done, it was time to hang out with another adventure buddy, by nephew Jordan. First stop: the Mosquito Range.

An abandoned mine on the flanks of Mount Sherman. My favorite photo of the year.

Jordan and I had done the Decalibron loop the year before, so it made sense to finish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together. We got up early, drove to Fairplay and then hiked Mountain Sherman. This was a surprisingly scenic peak.

Summit view from Mount Sherman.

Having tackled that, we gorged in Buena Vista, camped overnight and took a shot at La Plata Peak. A lot of hard work going up those switchbacks, but no summit. Still, what an incredible place.

La Plata Peak the evening before our summit attempt.

Jordan checking out the scenery on the way down from La Plata.

One the way home from Colorado, another pit stop at a place I’d seen before, but in winter conditions. Black Mesa, Okla., is special in summer, too.

Hoodoos near Black Mesa, Okla.

In the fall, me and Bec headed out to Arkansas, this time to Bentonville. This was not exclusively an “outdoor adventure” trip, but it did have that element.

A hiker on the trail in Hobbs State Park, Ark.

Arkansas knows how to do state parks. Hobbs State Park is amazing, and begs for another visit.

I’ve got a few other good memories that were captured closer to home. Over the course of the fall, I had plenty of time to soak in the scene while on long runs or bike rides. Fall came late, but when it did, the appeal of the changing season was clear.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Maybe six weeks later, another great signal of changing seasons: a decent dusting of snow.

On the ridge trail on Turkey Mountain, looking across the Arkansas River and into south Tulsa. Another one of my favorite images from 2017.

There are plenty of other memories of places seen and things done that I could recall — 365 days is a lot of time to collect memories — but this is a decent sampling.

It would be foolish to dismiss the negative of 2017, whether it be what’s happening nationally or around the world, or how life has changed for me personally. But it’s nice to balance those scales with the good. And here’s a little lesson…

Every photo you see here has one thing in common: Being in these places involved a choice. A choice to meet a friend and hang out. A choice to make time for family. A choice to endure physical hardship to see uncommon beauty. A choice to lace up the shoes, head out the door and run. A choice to take advantage of the moment, even if that moment was fleeting.

So as 2017 comes to end, feel free to say “good riddance.” But don’t forget to say thanks for the good. And if the thought of 2018 brings a little dread, remember to make a few choices, to chase the good wherever it leads.

Happy New Year, friends.

Bob Doucette

Happy trails, 2017!

Snow day: A rare hiking treat in my hometown

Living in the Southern Plains, snow is not guaranteed. Usually we’re good for a few snowy days a year, but not lately. The past few years have been remarkably snow-free.

But there is a lot to be said for a good hike on a snowy day. When it snows here, I don’t hunker down. I get outside. There’s nothing quite so beautiful as a forest with a fresh coat of snow.

These photos were taken on a modest five-mile hike at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area over the weekend after a two-inch dusting overnight. By the time you read this, almost all of this snow will be gone. Hence the urgency to get out there and enjoy it.

The Cityplex Towers framed by snow-covered tree limbs.

Being in the middle of a city, you get a good mix of woodland and urban scenery. This view was a good example of that.

Moonscape, along the ridge at Turkey Mountain.

Sadly, I wasn’t up early enough for first tracks. But it was still pretty cool.

Snowy singletrack.

Not a lot of packed snow, and the trail was muddy and icy. But not too bad.

Leaving the ridge and looking south on the Powerline Trail

Snow and ice on the powerlines made a very audible buzzing sound. That was weird.

A natural arch.

Even though we’re in winter, fall is stubborn in these parts. Some plants refuse to lose their fall foliage, even when weighed down by snow.

Detail shot of frozen foliage.

I dig the optics of a winter close-up.

Anyway, nothing profound or earth-shattering here. Snow is somewhat of a novelty in my city. Although I grew up in snowy places as a kid, being away from its regularity has made it fascinating again.

Enjoy your winter, folks.

Bob Doucette

Local conservation at work: Trail work day at Turkey Mountain

Volunteers sign up at last month’s Turkey Mountain work day. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

It’s been awhile since the controversy at Turkey Mountain unfolded. You might remember when someone wanted to put an outlet mall there. We’re past that now, and those of us who like to hike, bike and run the trails there are grateful.

But at the time, it was on people’s brains. When we did work days, scores of volunteers showed up to pick up trash, trim back undergrowth and shore up portions of the trails that had become worn down by weather and use.

Now, it’s different. The crowds aren’t as big. But dedicated people are still showing up to give Turkey Mountain a bit of TLC.

When the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition was formed, one of the first things we did was reach out to potentially like-minded organizations locally and in the state. One of those groups was the Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship.

OEF, affiliated with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is active in Oklahoma MTB circles. OEF is a major presence at any race in the state, and has been a force in developing and improving mountain biking routes in Oklahoma. What OEF shares with TUWC is a strong affinity for conservation.

So it was no surprise that when this work day approached, OEF was there, with a pickup and trailer full of tools to get to work.

Volunteers look over a repaired section of trail. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

We embarked on a couple of projects. One was to clear out deadfall and other debris on portions of the trails near the trailhead and beyond. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority led those efforts. The second was to repair a section of trail on a popular route overlooking the the Arkansas River called Ho Chi. Ho Chi is one of those trails that receives more use than just about anywhere else on Turkey Mountain, carved into the side of a ridge that falls away steeply downhill toward the river. As you can imagine, erosion is problematic here.

Repairing the section included finding large rocks and backfill dirt to shore up a section that was washing away. Many hands made for light work, and within a couple of hours, it was done.

Removing debris and deadfall near the trailhead. (photo by Laurie Biby/TUWC)

It should be noted that part of the OEF crew came up from Oklahoma City. OEF members have also been involved with trail development projects near Claremore Lake, a new-ish trail system in a distant suburb north of Tulsa.

It was a cool, breezy day, but that didn’t keep the crew from hanging out afterward, cracking open a few beers and sharing stories of races past.

I get a couple of takeaways from this.

First, it’s good to see the MTB community working with hikers and runners on projects like these. In some areas, cyclists and runners/bikers clash. But there was no evidence of that here. Just solid cooperation. We all have a shared interest in protecting wild green space and developing/preserving trail systems that not only help us enjoy the sports we love, but allow others to get outside, get active, become healthier and learn to appreciate how special natural spaces are. The OEF/TUWC partnership has been a good one, and will be for a long time to come.

Second, it’s encouraging to see the ownership people have taken in Turkey Mountain and places like it. If you follow the news much, you’ll notice that many federal and state public lands are at risk. States are running out of money to manage their own parks, and federally owned public lands are under constant pressure from large lobbying interests to be developed for extraction, harvesting and other forms of development. It can be discouraging for conservationists, but there is hope at the local level. Local conservationists worked hard to protect Turkey Mountain from commercial interests, and years later, the lands at Turkey Mountain are more secure than they’ve ever been. Outsider groups didn’t do this. No white knights rode in to save the day. Ordinary people from the Tulsa area banded together, collaborated with Turkey Mountain’s stakeholders convinced local leadership to preserve one of the few urban wild spaces left in the state.

Every time we do a work day, the commitment to this is demonstrated. And each time it’s demonstrated, the merits of conservation are illustrated. Here’s hoping for more of this, and for grassroots conservation to permeate the national discussion on public lands, public health and the value of getting people outdoors.

Bob Doucette

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

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