Pruning the Parks: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area Was a National Park for Just Five Years

Flaming Gorge Dam, completed in 1962, impounds 91-mile long Lake Flaming Gorge. Photo by Shelley Kay via Flickr.

Between 1930 and 1994, Congress transferred 23 units of the National Park System to “other custody,” mostly to other federal agencies or to state and municipal governments. Few were surprised that Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah-Wyoming (mostly Utah) was one of the delisted units.

There was no real sense of loss when, on October 1, 1968, Congress transferred Flaming Gorge NRA to the U.S. Forest Service. Congress hadn’t mandated National Park Service administration for Flaming Gorge, and the Park Service wasn’t deeply committed to reservoir recreation management.

Flaming Gorge Dam is located on the Green River in northeastern Utah about 200 miles east of Salt Lake City. The dam, an authorized storage unit of the Colorado River Storage Project, impounds 91-mile long Lake Flaming Gorge (a.k.a. “the Gorge”).

The reservoir has three marinas and ten boat ramps on its 300 miles of shoreline and is noted for great boating and fishing (trout, salmon, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish). Below the dam, the Green River offers excellent rafting as well as some of the nation’s finest trout fishing.

The dam was completed in 1962 and the dam and reservoir system was fully operational by 1967. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the dam and power plant, while the Western Area Power Administration markets the power (nearly 51,000 kilowatts).

An administrative agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation that was inked on July 22, 1963, made the recreational management of Lake Flaming Gorge a National Park Service responsibility. Thus, without a Congressional mandate – there was no specific act of Congress -- Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area became a unit of the National Park System.

This administrative agreement occurred at a time when the National Park Service was becoming less interested in the recreational management of impoundments in the western states and more interested in the management of parks located close to population centers (especially in or close to metro areas). The Flaming Gorge agreement was, in brief, a custodial arrangement not destined to last any longer than it had to.

Lake Flaming Gorge and the NRA focused on it are wholly contained within the 1.38 million acre Ashley National Forest, a high and rugged wilderness and backcountry area ranging from about 6,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation. Given this fact, it was only natural that the Forest Service should be put in charge of the recreational management of Lake Flaming Gorge as well as the stretch of the Green River flowing through the Ashley National Forest. The Forest Service was amenable to this new arrangement -- call it a rearrangement, if you will -- and so Congress ordered it on October 1, 1968. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area had been a National Park Service responsibility for just five years.

Post script: Flaming Gorge NRA wasn’t the only reservoir-based recreation area that the National Park Service was happy to get rid of. The NPS transferred the Shasta Lake and Shadow Mountain Recreation Areas to the Forest Service in 1948 and 1979, respectively, while the Lake Texoma Recreation Area reverted to the Corps of Engineers in 1949 and the Millerton Lake Recreation Area went to the state of California in 1957.

Comments

It makes me wonder if other National Recreation Areas should be transferred to the forest service. The whole debate about recreation vs. preservation continues to rear its ugly head. Maybe recreation doesn't belong in the list of NPS missions and such areas should be transferred out.

Just a thought.

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Congress should complete this excellent decision and divest from the NPS Lake Meredith, Amistad, Curecanti, and the park formerly known as Grand Coulee NRA. The Army Corps actually has an excellent public recreation operation that can take some of these sites and the USFS the rest. Get the NPS out of managing reservoirs with little else to offer besides simple water-based recreation. (I will have to give in to places like Glen Canyon, North Cascades, and Lake Mead where the surrounding holdings are extensive and worthy natural and cultural resources).

The NPS apparently very much wants to keep Curecanti NRA, and currently has a plan out for public comment that would expand Curecanti and calls on Congress to officially designate the NPS manager of the public land surrounding Curecanti's three reservoirs. Curecanti, very likely Colorado's most inferior NPS unit, is managed together with adjacent Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Check out the NPS's plan for Curecanti here: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkId=48&projectId=11243&documentID=24668

Curecanti sparks deep passions in many Colorado "water buffalos," who revere the three reservoirs, part of the Aspinall Unit, together as a great monument to late Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall, one of the Bureau of Reclamation's most fervent boosters of yore.

Independent news of the ongoing precedent-setting, illegal privatization of Lake Texoma State Park by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District, and the State of Oklahoma.

Just noticed your reference to NPS offloading Lake Texoma Recreation Area to the Corps in 1949. When these original Chickasaw and Choctaw lands on the Oklahoma/northern side of the lake were purchased pursuant to the Flood Control Act of 1938, the federal government went through a legal condemnation process for that purpose only. Later, electricity generation at the Denison Dam, and then Recreation, were added in the mission of USACE management of the Lake Texoma and surrounding federal lands.

In 2008, 750 acres of Lake Texoma State Park, including 564 acres of federally-protected park land, were sold to the State Tourism Department and then to Pointe Vista Developement. Now, the state is pursuing an addtiional 1,022 acres to sell to Pointe Vista Development. I am interested in learning how these federal lands can be privatized, in the absence of another condemnation process allowing for privatization, when the original condemnation process stated these lands were being condemned for flood control purposes only.

In June, 2005, the Corps of Engineers in Tulsa issued a fraudulent Environmental Assessment regarding the first two segments of the park which were illegally sold in 2008. That EA studied the expansion of the park to include a public/private partnership surrounding the Chickasaw Pointe Golf Course, north of US70, and the complete revitalization and restoration of Lake Texoma State Park and Resort on the south of the highway. It did not study the complete privatization of the park for the benefit of wealthy Oklahoma City businessmen, Mark Fischer, CEO of Chaparral Energy, and Aubrey Kerr McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy.

There is collusion between National Park Service officials and the State of Oklahoma in violation of the federal Land and Water Conservation Act, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act, with the goal of securing additional park and shoreline acreage for private commercial development, unless the Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, and Obama administration officials take action to stop it.

Thanks for your excellent article. If you or any members here know the answer to this question regarding the condemnation process, please feel free to call me in Kingston, OK at 580-564-7205.