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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#OptOutside on the water: Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas

Cruising over the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas.

Another Black Friday came and went, and for the third straight year, a good chunk of the masses decided to forgo the sales and head outside. Kudos to REI for kickstarting the #OptOutside movement, and everything it symbolizes (specifically, what it must mean to its employees).

For me, it’s usually meant hiking or trail running. But this year it was different. A good chunk of my family met up at a lake house on the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir in east Texas for the holiday, and anytime you’re at a lake like this one, time on the water trumps all.

My niece’s husband is definitely a lake guy. Fishing, water skiing or just cruising around, he loves the water. Back when Liz and Mitchel were dating, he picked up a boat for $300, with some wondering if it would ever be seaworthy. Mitchel had it on the water that day.

The boat has been nicknamed the Black Pearl. Great name for this vessel, as it may be a bit worn, but pulls its weight and has a bit of a legend. You can fish from it, pull a skier and, amazingly, get some work done. As it turns out, the Pearl has a history that goes beyond being a reclaimed wreckage.

Back when Hurricane Harvey was busy dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston, many neighborhoods were flooded. Folks were trapped in their swamped homes, with nowhere to get food, water and decent shelter. A call went out for people with boats to help these folks out.

Enter the Black Pearl, with Mitchel and Liz helping some folk escape flooded homes to safety.

Flooded Houstonians get a lift to safety on the Black Pearl after Hurricane Harvey.

Over the weekend, we used it to pull of 50-foot log off a beach, haul it to boat ramp and eventually cut it into sections that were used to line the out ring of a now under-construction fire pit.

Reclaiming some driftwood for a project at my sister’s lake house. It took some doing, but Mitchel and his trusty boat got it back to shore and ready for the job.

As it turns out, the Pearl is a good working boat.

But Black Friday on the Black Pearl was more about fun. We took the girls out for a cruise, checking out flooded trees on the lake where eagles had their nests. The lake is lined with houses of varying sizes, but it also is dotted with islands and surrounded by the Sabine National Forest and state park land on the Louisiana side. Toledo Bend is a popular destination for bass fishing tournaments, and plenty of anglers were on the water.

We mixed up our cruise with full-throttled blasts and slower runs to see the sights. Sunny skies and cold beer mixed nicely with the tunes playing from on-board speakers in the bow. It was a great way to kill a couple of hours before dinner.

Mitchel in his element, piloting the Black Pearl.

My turn at the wheel. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a kid.

The next day featured some free time and calm waters. I’d been eating a ton, so some exercise seemed appropriate. Poking around the garage, I found a flatwater kayak and all the gear needed to go out on the water.

The kayak was hot pink. All that was missing were some My Little Pony decals to complete the picture, but I didn’t care. That sucker was going in the water with me in it.

Something to keep in mind: I’ve never been in a kayak. Canoe? Sure. Many times. And rafts. But never a kayak.

This was a good time with a good view.

It takes some getting used to. Since this was a shorter boat, keeping it straight was a bit of work, but manageable. Every now and then I got into a rhythm, paddling outside the main boating channels and staying relatively close to shore, never more than a few hundred feet from the beach.

At times, I’d stop paddling just to listen. If there weren’t any boats speeding by, the quiet was interrupted only by the water lapping against the side of the hull.

What I found is that type of gentle quiet is very similar to what I experience when I stop in the middle of a hike just to listen to the sounds of the woods or the breeze atop a summit. With so much noise around us at all times, we need those moments of quiet. Life has been pretty noisy lately, so those couple of hours on the kayak were a soothing balm.

Even though I live close to a number of lakes, I’m more of a trail guy. I don’t think that’s going to change. But mixing things up has its perks, and there’s plenty of good to be found on the water. And just like those #OptOutside days on the trail, Black Friday on the water was way better than fighting crowds looking for the next-best deal on the next-best doo-dad. Gimme a power boat or a kayak any time.

Bob Doucette

Trails, hikes, museums and more: Exploring Bentonville, Arkansas

Hilly, wooded goodness awaits near Bentonville, Ark.

It seems a lot of my free time and time off is spent charging away at some trail, or hunkering down in a backcountry campsite. To be clear, I like it that way.

But not every getaway for yours truly is like that. And that’s a good thing. There is something to be said about mixing up some natural beauty with a more relaxed – and comfortable – break from the daily grind.

Earlier this fall, Bec and I did just that. Seeing how fun my last venture into northwest Arkansas was, a return visit seemed worthwhile. We made a bunch of stops: a huge lake, an incredible museum, some solid places to eat and, of course, a little time on the trail.

The locale this time was in and around Bentonville. Most people know the town as the headquarters of Walmart. And while this is true (and having a massive corporation anchor your city has its perks), there’s quite a bit more to be had. Bentonville and the surrounding towns have all benefited from the wealth a big company provides, but in many ways, this corner of the state has maintained some of its earthier flavor. And that, my friends, is also good thing.

Some of the highlights…

BEAVER LAKE

Beaver Lake and dam. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

At more than 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is massive. There are 12 parks located around the lake with 650 campsites. We stayed at a cabin near the lakeshore, and had easy access to boat docks. The lake is prime for fishing (it’s biggest draws are trophy smallmouth bass and stripers), water skiing and boating, and I imagine would be a great place to explore in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.

CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s not unusual for smaller cities to have museums, but Bentonville punches above its weight with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Funded by philanthropic endeavors of the Walton family, it’s a facility of jaw-dropping architecture, with airy, sunlit buildings laced together around a small lake. Glass walls let in natural light, and once inside, the collection of works from American artists dating back to the 1700s is impressive. Landscapes, portraits, sculptures and more modern pieces fill its galleries. My guess is any major American city would be all too happy to boast being home to a place like Crystal Bridges.

The museum has special exhibits, outdoor art, and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. The house was deconstructed from its former New Jersey site, moved to Crystal Bridges and rebuilt. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, and maybe my favorite part of the visit.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Bentonville’s paved trails link Crystal Bridges to the rest of the city, and a walk from there to downtown isn’t too far.

One of the best parts of the museum is its free admission. There are paid, ticketed exhibits, but the main collection comes at no cost to visitors. The museum has a full-service restaurant and coffee shop on-site.

WAR EAGLE MILL

War Eagle Mill and Bridge.

This popular tourist destination is a working mill that dates back to 1832. The mill has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but it has persevered as an important site for nearly two centuries.

The mill itself still functions, powered by a paddlewheel that turns with the flow of an adjacent river. You can buy milled products there (as well as any number of touristy wares), and a café on the third floor is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

HOBBS STATE PARK

Arkansas does its state parks right, and Hobbs State Park and Conservation District is a glowing example of that. The park is host to a number of trails and looped routes through heavily wooded hills, some with overlooks of Beaver Lake.

The trails are great for hiking – they’re well-marked and maintained. Some portions might include some elevation gain and steep stretches, but for the most part, you can hike these routes whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a just beginner.

They’re also very runnable. Trail running enthusiasts train and compete here regularly. If mountain biking is more your thing, you’re in for a good time. Long, flowy stretches of singletrack await. Northwest Arkansas is becoming well-known as a mountain biking Mecca, and now I know why. I’m definitely bringing my ride next time.

DOWNTOWN BENTONVILLE

All that corporate affluence has made downtown Bentonville quite the scene, especially on weekend evenings. Several high-quality restaurants are located there (we tried Fiamma Ristorante and were not disappointed, and Table Mesa Bistro gets rave reviews). If that’s not your thing, an armada of food trucks is usually parked around the town square, and live music abounds. If you’re curious about the history of the world’s biggest retailer, a Walmart museum is also located here.

That’s a real quick overview of the area, and there is a lot we didn’t get to see. But I think you can get the gist. You can get your outdoor fix, clean up, and enjoy fine dining or a night at the museum if you please. Or just hang out at the lake. Either way, it might not be quite what you’d expect to find so far from a big city or more traditional resort town.

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

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