Uncertainty Looms Over Walnut Creek’s Somber Final Weekend As A State Park

  • Logan Layden
Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park in August 2014.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park in August 2014.

Walnut Creek State Park closed indefinitely last weekend, the latest in a series of park closures that started in 2011, and a victim of budget priorities and changing attitudes at the department of tourism. StateImpact traveled to the banks of Keystone Lake to visit with some of Walnut Creek’s last campers as a state park, and the people whose livelihoods are now in danger.

After four decades of coming to Walnut Creek State Park, Robert Foster and his wife pack out their camp for what could be the final time and reminisce about all the fun their family had here.

“We’d be camping next to my dad, and my alarm clock in the morning was horseshoes clinging,” Foster says. “He’d be clinging the horseshoes together to get me to come out to play. But he loved to camp here, and my mom. We even did [sic] a eulogy of my dad here. After he passed, me and my mom did [sic] a eulogy here about this park for my dad, in honor of him.”

Foster says he was shocked when a park manager stopped by to tell him the gates would be closing early this year, and might never open again.

“We thought they’d at least have some kind of a plan, you know, to keep it open,” Foster says. “This park has been a longtime friend. It’s almost like seeing a friend go. Because we grew up here when we were little kids. They had family reunions. It’s one of those things you miss when you can’t do it anymore.”

It’s a sad day for Foster. He has a lot of memories of spending time out here with late family members.  And now, the park might die too. But in the tiny town of Prue, less than a mile from the park, there’s real concern about what Walnut Creek’s closure will mean for the handful of local businesses, like Ken’s convenience store just down the road from the park entrance.

“It probably will be concerning us because it will die down our business a lot. We’ll lose a lot of business,” Employee Sheryl Hrisco says as she stops mopping the floor to explain how important the park is to the survival of the store.

“It comes and goes. In the wintertime it’s slower because it’s so cold that nobody wants to go to the park. But in the summertime it normally is a big deal,” Hrisco says. “We have a whole bunch of people come over, like the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day and all that stuff.”

Behind the counter, Mashawnda Aguirre says the small store is enjoying one last bump in business as the park closes for the season, and possibly, for good.

“Every weekend it’s packed out here, and even now that everybody is worried about it closing, because they want to come out here and spend time. So this last week here, we’ve had a lot of business just from the people trying to get to the park before it closes,” Aguirre says.

The future is uncertain for Walnut Creek, which the state officially offloaded October 1st. In the past, parks that have been stripped of their state status have stayed open, and even thrived, because local governments and tribes stepped in to take them over.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the land Walnut Creek is on, and there’s talk of the Corps scraping some money together to operate the park, or selling it to the Osage Nation. If history is any guide, there’s a good chance the park will be open under new management next season, but that is by no means certain.