Rebuilding America: Visitation spikes at some southern Oklahoma campgrounds, others still recovering from closure

Sierra Rains
Swimmers at Lake Murray State Park.

Visitation at some Oklahoma campgrounds has never been higher as people take to the outdoors to safely get out of the house during the pandemic.

Most parks have created some restrictions for visitors but for others that completely shut their gates to the public, the pandemic has had adverse effects — some trickling down to the surrounding cities.

Leslie Blair, the Public Information Officer for the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, said the state shut down lodges and restaurants at parks across Oklahoma in March, resulting in a slight decrease in revenue from those facilities.

However, most campgrounds, hiking trails and swimming areas remained open; and throughout the two month period, Blair said visitation spiked at parks across the state.

“The last six weeks or so, we’ve filled up everything that we’ve had. We’ve had the busiest April that we’ve ever had because there were so many people here,” said Richard Keithley, the park manager at Lake Murray State Park.

All tent camping areas at Lake Murray State Park in Ardmore recently opened back up on May 1 after being closed April 3 to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 from public restrooms shared by tent campers.

Prior to those restrictions, Keithely said several large crowds were attempting to come into the state park. Closing the tent camping areas helped keep numbers down, but the remaining RV campgrounds subsequently became entirely full each week.

“Tent camping had little effect on the revenue,” Keithley said. Typically Lake Murray State Park does not see those kinds of numbers until June, he said. “We’re actually up for the year and as of right now it looks like it’s had little effect on our numbers.”

Most areas and facilities have reopened at Lake Murray as of late May and the park plans to have the lodge fully reopened by Memorial Day weekend. Like most parks, the reopening has come with extra sanitary precautions and reminders for guests to continue practicing CDC health guidelines.

“People should be keeping their distance. They’re recommending face masks, especially if you’re going to be a little closer— if you’re passing on trails maybe you put it on and then you can take it off once you’re far enough away from folks,” said Chickasaw National Recreation Area Public Information Officer Megan Wilkins.

Campgrounds at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur have remained closed for the duration of the pandemic, along with the Travertine Nature Center, but the hiking trails have continued to see heavy traffic.

Wilkins said park officials are currently working to develop a phased plan for reopening campgrounds. However, the details and dates are largely uncertain at this time.

Only a few miles away from the recreation area, the Turner Falls Park in Davis is still recovering from a nearly two month closure of the entire park. Around a month into the closure on April 17, park manager Billy Standifer estimated that the park had already lost nearly $300,000 in revenue.

Susan Suther, the Public Information Officer for the city of Davis, said the total of expenses and lost revenue is still being finalized at this time. However, the decrease is noticeable when comparing numbers of park guests.

Upon reopening at the beginning of May, the park announced that only 2,000 people would be allowed in at one time in order to help maintain social distancing. Typically, the park sells close to 5,000 tickets per day, meaning there will be considerably less ticket sales this year.

Suther said the majority of the revenue collected from Turner Falls is used to sustain the park and helps fund park construction and maintenance. However, the park wages also help bolster the city’s sales tax and a per ticket amount goes into the city’s street and maintenance fund.

“So it’s used for infrastructure for the streets in Davis,” Suther said, adding that a portion of revenue also goes into the city’s general fund to be used for various expenses such as the purchase of new police cars.

“We make a plan to do this much in street maintenance or repairs in a year and if our revenues drop then we have to adjust that plan,” Suther said.

Blair said communities that have tourism destinations like parks located within their city limits also typically see an increase in tax revenue from park visitors visiting the town for supplies or food. Any time that parks close, that tax revenue goes away.

“This isn’t like a flood where once repairs are made we can get back to normal,” Suther said. “We’re used to that kind of thing. We’ve had those kinds of years but with the pandemic we don’t really know.”

In the meantime, Suther said the city is bracing for any possibilities such as a second spike in illness.

“We have to be prepared for there to be a spike again,” Suther said. “We could go back into an earlier phase. As people start to get out and as people start to let their guards down then you know we could see an increase in illness.”

In order to help make sure guests at the park are staying safe, Suther said a list of pandemic precautions have been added to the park’s brochure, which is handed to guests upon arrival.

Many of these precautions are a new normal for parks across the state, including social distancing, avoiding areas of high traffic, not camping close together, wearing masks when possible, packing hand sanitizer and limiting the number of people allowed in trading posts and nature centers at one time.

As long as visitors continue to follow these guidelines and practice safe health practices, Blair said there is no reason people should not go outdoors or visit campgrounds.

“We never were completely closed to the public so we were one of the few options for people to get outside, get fresh air, exercise— it was important for people’s mental health to have those options available to them so we were happy to provide those services to the public all while still maintaining social distancing,” Blair said.