A Park of the People: The Demotion of Platt National Park, Oklahoma

Article excerpt

Platt National Park, Oklahoma, was the smallest national park in the United States until it was combined with an adjacent, reservoir-centered recreation site in 1976 to form Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Set aside as Sulphur Springs Reservation by agreement with the Chickasaw Indians in 1902 and designated a national park in 1906, Platt is the only American national park to be demoted since World War II. The story of Platt's creation and demotion reflects the changing mission of the National Park Service (NPS), shifting images of nature and recreation among the American public, and broader social forces that frame park purposes. What started as local boosterism of hydrotherapy in cold mineral springs grew into one of America's most visited national parks by the 1920s. Despite its popularity, Platt lacked both scenic grandeur and political influence; it did not fit prevailing images of wild nature among NPS bureaucrats and the urban elite who formed the core of the environmental movement; it was too small, too humanized, and too ordinary. As images of people embedded in nature have gained wider acceptance in recent decades, would this small, geographically distinctive, and culturally rich "park of the people" have met a similar fate today?

Keywords: Platt National Park; Chickasaw National Recreation Area; National Park Service; environmental history; public lands policy

Introduction

What constitutes a "valid" national park? At present, the National Park Service (NPS) administers almost 400 units scattered across the United States with over 20 different designations, including national park, national monument, national seashore, national battlefield, and national recreation area (Rettie 1995). Among these, there is no debate that the designation of "national park" conveys the highest status--a reflection of the park's outstanding landscape character and importance to the natural and cultural heritage of the nation (Dilsaver 2003). Currently, there are 58 national parks in the United States. Although the NPS has grown substantially since its creation in 1916, national park status has generally been awarded conservatively.

Demotion from national park status occurred on several occasions in the early history of federal parklands. For example, Mackinac National Park, Michigan, was established in 1875, administered by the United States Army, and transferred to state control in 1895. Sully's Hill Park, North Dakota, was established by legislative invitation and presidential proclamation in 1904. Although probably never intended to be a national park, the NPS designated it as such until it was transferred to the Biological Survey (predecessor of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) in 1931 (Ise 1979).

Platt National Park, Oklahoma, is the only national park of longstanding tenure demoted by the NPS, and the only national park demoted since World War II. Designated as a national park in 1906, ten years before the creation of the NPS, it remained a national park until its reclassification in 1976. In many ways, the story of Platt is unique. Although many proposed national parks have been denied since World War II (Dilsaver 2008), there are no other modern examples of loss of national park status from an existing NPS unit. Despite Platt's unique treatment, its story bears further examination, because it illustrates how our collective assignation of meaning to public lands is contingent upon evolving social constructions of park purpose and associated shifts in administrative policy, as much as it is an objective evaluation of merit.

Dilsaver and Young (2007) emphasize the importance of the social role of parks in recent geographic scholarship. They note that parks, as protected public space, are often sites of environmental and social conflict, because "[p]arks are centers of power to be identified, interpreted, and controlled. These spaces, in turn, inform Americans about who they are, what they value and how they should behave. …