The portion of Oklahoma's Chickasaw National Recreation Area that was once Platt National Park has cleared the first hurdle en route to National Historic Landmark designation. Thus, a landscape that was "demoted" from National Park status on grounds that it lacked outstanding cultural or scenic attributes is now being touted for its outstanding historical qualities
Platt National Park was the National Park System's smallest National Park-designated unit (just 858 acres) when it was abolished on March 17, 1976, and combined with the adjacent Arbuckle Recreation Area and additional lands to form Chickasaw National Recreation Area. To this day, Platt National Park remains the only National Park-designated unit of the National Park System to ever be decommissioned and absorbed into an NPS unit not designated National Park. And to this day, many people feel that this Congressional action, which has been quite understandably construed as as an ignominious demotion for the former National Park, was ill-advised.
In abolishing Platt National Park, Congress accorded no particular importance to the park's popularity as a visitor attraction (annual attendance first topped one million way back in 1949). Instead, the legislators acted on impulses rooted in changing perceptions of what a National Park-designated NPS unit ought to be. As geographer Albert Parker pointed out in his article A Park of The People: The Demotion of Platt National Park, Oklahoma (Journal of Cultural Geography Vol. 27 (2) June 2010):
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.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area, a very popular national park (1.2 million recreational visits in 2009) has managed the former Platt National Park as an administrative unit called the Platt Historic District. An important element of Chickasaw's mission is to preserve and interpret the Platt Historic District's physical resources (including numerous mineral springs) and cultural-historical resources.
The importance of the latter was underscored when the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service Advisory Board voted unanimously on November 4 to recommend that the original Platt National Park portion of Chickasaw National Recreation Area be designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL).
This would be quite an honor for both the park and the state of Oklahoma. National Historic Landmark designation is the highest honor that the Interior Secretary can bestow on a historic site, being reserved for sites possessing exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Out of more than 80,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places only about 2,430 are NHLs, and only 20 of these NHLs are in Oklahoma.
In announcing the committee recommendation, the Park Service pointed out that:
Platt National Park is considered significant because of its landscape, architecture, and preserved environment. The landscape is a tangible example of one of the most intense master planning and conservation programs carried out by the NPS. From 1933-1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps used native stone to construct roads, trails and recreational areas and planted native trees and shrubs to enhance the park. As a result of the workmanship, design, and setting, visitors to Chickasaw National Recreation Area’s Platt Historic District experience the park’s springs, streams, waterfalls, swimming holes, picnic areas, and campgrounds in the tradition of earlier Platt National Park visitors.
The NPS Advisory Board will vote on acceptance of the Landmarks Committee recommendation at a meeting scheduled for April 2011. If the Advisory Board approves the committee recommendation, the Board will ask the Secretary of the Interior to formally approve the NHL designation.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area superintendent Bruce Noble has applauded the committee recommendation, adding that NHL designation would not change the way the park or its Platt Historic District is managed, but would yield valuable publicity for the park and perhaps a boost in visitation.
Postscript: People who believe that Platt National Park should never have been demoted will feel at least partially vindicated if (as seems very likely) Chickasaw's Platt Historic District is elevated to National Historic Landmark status. However, even the former park's most ardent defenders realize that the restoration of National Park designation is exceedingly unlikely.