In Oklahoma, A National Park That Got Demoted

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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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