Beaver Dunes in the Eastern Panhandle is now jointly owned by the City of Beaver and Pioneer Parks.

J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

Why It’s Hard to Privatize and Move State Parks

  • Joe Wertz

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee met yesterday and discussed whether state parks and golf courses should be privatized.

Parks drive tourism, which is the third largest industry in the state, said Deby Snodgrass, the executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.

J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

Beaver Dunes in the Eastern Panhandle is now jointly owned by the City of Beaver and Pioneer Parks.

Privatizing state parks isn’t easy. Most state parks are leased, not owned, and were built with federal conservation funds, which come with restrictions on their sale and transfer.

If the state closes a park and privatizes it, the land has to be replaced at current market value. These rules don’t apply if the state sells or transfers the park to another government entity.

In March, the tourism department said it would close seven state parks on Aug. 15, a move that Snodgrass said would save about $700,000.

In the end, cities and tribal governments took over management of all seven parks. Cities now own five of the parks; American Indian tribes control the other two.

Adair State Park City of Stilwell Adair County
Beaver Dunes City of Beaver and Pioneer Parks City of Beaver and Pioneer Parks
Boggy Depot Chickasaw Nation Chickasaw Nation
Brushy Lake City of Sallisaw City of Sallisaw
Heavener Runestone City of Heavener City of Heavener
Lake Eucha City of Tulsa City of Tulsa
Wah-Sha-She U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Osage Nation

Oklahoma’s state park system was put in place in the 1950s, and the population has shifted, Snodgrass said at Thursday’s meeting. For parks to be effective, they need to be close to where people live, she said, noting that the bulk of Oklahoma’s population lives in the six counties along the Interstate 44 corridor.

There are only two parks in that region, Snodgrass said.

Moving parks to more populous areas of the state has plenty of detractors, most obviously citizens in less urban areas, a point driven home by state Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, who lamented losing a key part of such communities’ economies.

Rep. Brown told Snodgrass that God blessed his district — and much of Eastern Oklahoma — with an abundance of rivers, lakes and streams, which are a key attraction for a lot of park-goers. How, then, he asked, is the state going to build attractive parks by moving them to areas without lakes, rivers and trees?

Snodgrass told Rep. Brown that she wasn’t advocating closing all rural state parks and moving them to big cities, but said that Oklahoma City and Tulsa should have state parks, and that simply having a lake does not a state park make.