An appropriation bill for the Second Osage Nation Congress to take over a former state park's operations in northeastern Osage County has been withdrawn.
Wah-Sha-She State Park was closed earlier this year due to state budget cuts.
The legislative bill, ONCA 11-130, did not receive unanimous support from the Congressional Committee on Government Operations, which has reviewed the bill twice. On Dec. 7, the committee voted to pass the bill onto Congress with a do-not-pass recommendation.
During the Dec. 8 Special Session, the bill's sponsor motioned to withdraw the bill from further consideration. Questions about the park operations cost and written transfer and lease agreements arose during the committee meetings it was discussed.
Congressman John Free said during the session: "We're going to reintroduce it later when we have some questions answered."
In March, Oklahoma’s Tourism and Recreation Department announced the closures of seven state parks, which took effect in August. Wah-Sha-She State Park, located west of Copan, was among the facilities with its state funding slashed.
The ON Executive Branch later announced it would study the feasibility of transferring the park operations to the Nation. But the transfer would be contingent on the approval of Congress, which must appropriate tribal funding for the park operations and staffing to maintain it.
ONCA 11-130 was filed in October to fund the operations of the park, which would be renamed Hulah Lake Park. The bill proposes to add about $159,000 to the ON Properties Department budget for the park operations. The total budget is $183,141.
ONCA 11-130 received initial consideration on Nov. 10 during the 11th Special Congressional Session’s first day, but was tabled in committee before the entire Congress voted to end the session after four days. The bill is listed again as a consideration item for the 12th Special Session called by Principal Chief John Red Eagle.
Chris White, executive director of governmental affairs for Chief Red Eagle’s office, said he visited with state park officials once hearing of the former Wah-Sha-She State Park’s demise. The state negotiated transfers of the other closing parks to municipal and tribal government entities in their respective vicinities with hopes the Osage Nation would assume the park, which sits just inside Osage County’s eastern border north of Bartlesville.
Free said he was contacted by Osages who live in the area and were disappointed to see the park close. “I’ve had a lot of calls from constituents up in that area and they were all pretty heartsick about this . . . being closed down and I thought we’d take a very hard look at it,” he said.
The park land (approximately 200 acres) is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the tribe would not own the land, but will be responsible for its maintenance and must sign a lease with the Corps of Engineers, White said.
A feasibility study was conducted by the Executive Branch to examine a potential transfer agreement with the Corps of Engineers for the park operations and upkeep once receiving Chief Red Eagle’s approval. The Executive Branch then filed a binder containing a proposed lease agreement for the park just before the Tzi-Zho Session’s start in September. The bill, ONCA 11-130, was then filed for consideration in October just before the session ended.
The park transfer proposal faced an initial round of scrutiny during the Nov. 10 Congressional Committee on Government Operations where questions and concerns arose regarding the lease agreement, costs and whether the Nation should take on the park. If the Nation assumes the lease and operations, the lease will expire in 2016.
Raymond Lasley, executive advisor of programs for Chief Red Eagle’s office, told the committee the park would be staffed by one full-time employee and two seasonal workers. According to ONCA 11-130, salaries for the three positions total $69,872 with other expenses including: $12,860 for operations; $5,500 for rental and equipment maintenance; $27,312 for indirect costs; and $43,500 for occupancy.
Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw, in committee, said he wanted to see more details on the budget breakdown for costs to the Nation. “I’m trying to figure out what we’re getting into . . . This is a unique deal, this budget should reflect what is there.”
Lasley said the Nation would be responsible for park expenses including water, electricity, propane gas and bulk fuel. Other items needing attention include hooking up a work computer and telephone for employee use, he said.
Congresswoman Shannon Edwards said she would like to see a written legal opinion on the liability costs for the Nation.
Congressman Raymond Red Corn said he was concerned whether the Nation should take on the park venture with other maintenance and property matters which need addressing elsewhere. He referred to a pile of old playground equipment and discarded pipes left near the day care center in Pawhuska as an example of a maintenance issue.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘if we can’t maintain that on our campus, how do we really believe we’re going to do a good job in maintaining a park,’” Red Corn said. He motioned for the committee to table the bill to the call of the committee chairman Congressman Daniel Boone.
White said the Nation should consider taking on the park, adding “it adds to the quality of life for the community.” He noted the Nation has supported other local parks with contributions, including Fairfax, Skiatook and the skatepark in Pawhuska.
White also said other ON departments could use the park, especially for educational purposes.
Osages living in the area have contacted the Congress asking the Nation to consider the park operation duties.
The former Wah-Sha-She State Park is located off the shore of Lake Hulah with “hulah” coming from the Osage word for eagle, which is pronounced Hu-Tha.
Osage citizen David Lockman, who lives in the park region, wrote an email to government officials in September stating his family has enjoyed the park and its camping amenities for several years.
“This is a big part of our lives and (we) would like to see it remain open so my grand kids can enjoy the same lifestyle that I have,” Lockman wrote. “There is not much for these kids to do in this area except go to the lake during the summer and spend time with family and friends. If we take this away from our kids in the area, there will be no reason for them to stay in this area to help keep this community alive.”