In Oklahoma, A National Park That Got Demoted | KERA News

In Oklahoma, A National Park That Got Demoted

Aug 9, 2016
Originally published on August 9, 2016 6:37 pm

The Chickasaw National Recreation Area in south-central Oklahoma is not a national park — but it used to be. And the story of what happened illustrates a changing view of what national parks are for.

For over a century, the area's mineral-rich springs have been a gathering point for locals, travelers and tribes that were forcibly relocated to land that later became Oklahoma, says Debbie Sharp, president of the Friends of Chickasaw National Recreation Area, a nonprofit group.

"Native Americans consider this the rippling waters where spirits would help to soothe your soul, to heal the sick body; a place to restore yourself, to rest," Sharp says.

Word of this "Oklahoma oasis" spread in the late 1800s. Trainloads of tourists flooded in to soak and drink the water. The Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes were worried city entrepreneurs would turn the springs into a private spa, so they worked out a deal with the federal government. Platt National Park was formed in 1906, protecting the springs as public commons.

"It's really different from the other national parks because it doesn't have this grand scenery," says Heidi Hohmann, a professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University. She says Platt always struggled to stand out at the national level. Platt was the smallest national park. It had streams but no raging rivers. It had hills but no majestic mountains. And most of what you see today isn't natural. During the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs, carved trails and piped spring water to pavilions. Even the bison herd was transplanted.

"It's like this improved nature, in a sense," Hohmann says.

She says from the moment it was created 100 years ago, the National Park Service struggled to balance two ideals.

"We're going to protect these things and we're going to provide for enjoyment. That's the dual mandate," she says.

And sometimes one of those mandates is emphasized more than the other. Platt thrived in the 1950s as war-weary Americans flocked to leisure activities like boating and camping. But the conservation movement in the 1960s saw a push for more inspiring wilderness. In 1976, Platt was demoted. It was combined with a nearby reservoir and rebranded the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

Sharp says that change pushed the park off the nation's map.

"I would just give almost anything that I have to see that we return to the national park status," she says. "Just that national park status to me, that's pristine, that's beautiful, that's magnificent, that's part of something so big."

The recreation area does have one feature that many of its more impressive national park cousins lack: Admission is free.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

National parks are a big source of local pride, but about half of U.S. states don't have one. Oklahoma is among the parkless, but it wasn't always that way. Joe Wertz of StateImpact reports.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: It's around a hundred degrees here in South Central Oklahoma. The soggy, sickening heat clings to the skin and fogs the glasses. But in a pool near a waterfall, three women are huddled together, laughing.

SUNSHINE CUMINS: (Laughter) Cold, cold.

DENINE CUMINS: It is cold.

BREANNA STARNES: Oh, yeah. It's freezing (laughter).

WERTZ: Denine Cumins brought her daughter Sunshine to camp for the weekend. Sunshine's friend Breanna Starnes joined in for the three-hour trip from their hometown in Texas.

STARNES: Well, it's definitely green - very, very green. There's trees everywhere. You can see the water. You can see the bottom of the water no matter how deep it is.

WERTZ: The three women are enjoying scenery maintained by the National Park Service. The Chickasaw National Recreation Area is not a national park, but it used to be. And the story of what happened illustrates a changing view of what national parks are for.

Debbie Sharp is the president of the Friends of Chickasaw nonprofit group. For over a century, she says, this water has been a gathering point for locals, travelers and tribes that were forcibly relocated to land that later became Oklahoma.

DEBBIE SHARP: Native Americans consider this the rippling waters where spirits would help to soothe your soul, to heal the sick body, a place to restore yourself, to rest.

WERTZ: Word of the Oklahoma oasis spread. Trainloads of tourists flooded in to soak and drink from the mineral-rich water. The Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes were worried city entrepreneurs would turn the springs into a private spa, so they worked out a deal with the federal government. Platt National Park was formed in 1906, protecting the springs as public commons.

HEIDI HOHMANN: It's really different from all the other national parks because it doesn't have this grand scenery.

WERTZ: Heidi Hohmann is a professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University. She says Platt always struggled to stand out at the national level. Platt was the smallest national park. It had streams but no raging rivers. It had hills but no majestic mountains. And most of what you see today isn't natural.

During the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs, carved trails and piped spring water to pavilions. Even the bison herd was transplanted.

HOHMANN: It's like this improved nature, in a sense.

WERTZ: Hohmann says from the moment it was created a hundred years ago, the National Park Service has struggled to balance two ideals.

HOHMANN: We're going to protect these things, and we're going to provide for enjoyment. That's the dual mandate.

WERTZ: And sometimes one of those mandates is emphasized more than the other. Platt thrived in the 1950s as war-weary Americans flocked to leisure activities like boating and camping. But the conservation movement in the '60s saw a push for more inspiring wilderness.

In 1976, Platt was demoted. It was combined with a nearby reservoir and rebranded the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Debbie Sharp with Friends of Chickasaw says that change pushed the park off the nation's map.

SHARP: I would just give almost anything that I have to see that we return to the national park status. Just that national park status to me - that's pristine. That's beautiful. That's magnificent. That's part of something so big.

WERTZ: But back at the spring-fed pool in a shady spot near a waterfall, visitor Denine Cumins isn't that concerned with a formal national parks designation.

D. CUMINS: I didn't know that it's not anymore. I always thought it still was.

WERTZ: This recreation area does have one feature many of its more impressive national park cousins lack. Admission is free. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.