Pruning the Parks: Lake Texoma Recreation Area (1946-1949)

Lake Texoma sunset. Photo by chemisti via Flickr.

The Lake Texoma reservoir is a hugely popular flatwater playground on the Texas-Oklahoma border. It was once, albeit briefly, a national park.

The Flood Control Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-791) authorized the construction of Denison Dam on the Red River where it is joined by the Washita River and forms part of the Texas-Oklahoma border. The big dam and reservoir project was primarily intended to provide flood control while also providing hydropower, water-based recreation opportunities, municipal water supply, and related benefits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with the project. Construction got underway in August 1939 and the project was rushed to completion in early 1944 (with the first hydropower turbine coming on line in 1945).

The resulting dam was enormous, and so was the reservoir it impounded. Denison Dam-- named for the nearby town of Denison, Texas, birthplace of President Dwight Eisenhower -- contains nearly 19 million cubic yards of rolled-earth fill. At the time it was finished it was the largest dam of its type in the entire country.

In normal operation, the Lake Texoma reservoir has a surface area of nearly 90,000 acres (140 square miles), a capacity of just over 2.5 million acre-feet, and a shoreline that stretches around 550 miles. These dimensions are large by any standard. In fact, fewer than a dozen reservoirs in the entire United States have a larger capacity.

Under the terms of an agreement dated April 18, 1946, the Corps of Engineers transferred to the National Park Service administrative responsibility for the recreational use of Lake Texoma. In this way, a new National Park System unit designated Lake Texoma Recreation Area (aka Lake Texoma National Recreation Area) was created.

By this stage of America's great western dam building era, interagency agreements for the recreation management of reservoirs were fairly commonplace. But like a number of other reservoir recreation management agreements the Park Service inked during this era (see the Postscript), this one didn't last. On June 30, 1949, the National Park Service returned Lake Texoma Recreation Area to the Corps of Engineers by termination of agreement. The delisted Lake Texoma Recreation Area had been a national park for only a little more than three years.

Today, Lake Texoma and the dam that impounds it continue to fulfill the intended purposes of the grand design. There are significant flood abatement benefits for downstream communities, the hydropower turbines produce 250,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, and the reservoir provides nearly 125,000 acre feet of water storage for local communities under five permanent contracts.

The water-based recreational benefits are also impressive. Lake Texoma supports about 6 million recreational visits a year and is by far the most popular reservoir in the Corps of Engineers' Tulsa district. In the area along and near the lake's shoreline are two national wildlife refuges, two state parks (one in Texas, one in Oklahoma), 54 Corps of Engineers-managed parks, over two dozen resorts, a dozen marinas, numerous public and private campgrounds, some fine golf courses, and an assortment of other recreation facilities, including 80,000 acres of public hunting lands.

In addition to being heavily used for power boating, water skiing, jet skiing, sailing, wind surfing, swimming, and related activities, Lake Texoma is renowned for its excellent fishing. It is even one of those rare lakes with a naturally-reproducing population of striped bass (rockfish).

Postscript: Lake Texoma Recreation Area was not the shortest-lived of the five national parks that were abolished after being added to the National Park System as reservoir-based Recreation Areas in the western states. That dubious distinction belongs to California's Shasta Lake Recreation Area, which was acquired from the Bureau of Reclamation on May 22, 1945, and transferred to the Forest Service on July 1, 1948. Others in this category include Millerton Lake Recreation Area (May 22, 1945 to November 1, 1957), Shadow Mountain Recreation Area (June 27, 1952 to March 1, 1979, and Flaming Gorge Recreation Area (July 22, 1963 to October 1, 1968).

Comments

Can you provide some more info as to why these recreation areas were removed from the park system?

The gist of it is this: Lake Texoma and the other reservoir-based properties that were abolished/decommissioned because they were deemed to lack the nationally significant physical and cultural features we expect of national parks.