Several acres of Oxley Nature Center lands along Bird Creek are literally covered in old trash. Not just here and there — it’s on every tree, every vine, like tinsel draped over everything in a swath 50 yards wide in places.
But what’s on top is only a reflection of what is below — about 50 acres of the 300-acre park was created atop old city landfill areas.
As a March 1968 Tulsa World story reported, “Someday, your grandchildren will be playing in the new city dump.”
Fifty years later, the grandkids are organizing a big volunteer cleanup effort.
A gated section of Mohawk Boulevard that is now the entrance road to Oxley Nature Center once was an access road for a series of city landfill areas between the road and Bird Creek. Last month the flood eroded the point off one of those curves, including several yards worth of land, trees and all. A cross-section cut into the old landfill now is visible on the muddy bank, and the remnants are smeared across the landscape downstream like confetti spilled from the torn corner of a giant underground box.
Focus of the problem has been on trash covering the area along the now closed Bird Creek Trail and what used to be called the Wildlife Study Area between the entrance drive to Oxley Nature Center and the creek, although it was reported to the Parks Board at its weekly meeting last week that the trash came from an old landfill site.
On Wednesday, Tulsa Parks and Recreation officials were just coming to grips with the more serious nature of the problem.
“Erosion has exposed an area of historic dumping along Bird Creek,” City Parks and Recreation Director Anna America offered via email Wednesday. “The exposed dump appears to consist of household trash, such as plastics, paper, and glass. As Bird Creek has receded, the eroded area has remained stable and is not currently releasing additional material into Bird Creek. The City is working with its environmental consultant to coordinate with the appropriate agencies, monitor the exposed dump, investigate its extent, and take actions to mitigate future erosion.”
Early Wednesday afternoon, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality reported it was not yet aware of the problem but planned to act on the inquiry from the Tulsa World.
Spokeswoman Erin Hatfield later said the agency’s Solid Waste Management Division would work with the city of Tulsa and likely inspect the area this week.
“Certainly there is the obvious issue of it just being unappealing to have trash scattered across the area but it is also an environmental nuisance and you don’t want things to end up in the drinking water supply or just sitting out on the ground, it’s a serious environmental issue,” she said. “We’re definitely going to get out there as quickly as we can get someone out there.”
Tulsa World archive stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s reflect different attitudes about landfills than might be reported this century.
“It’s interesting the problems we create with building cities. They become big puzzles to solve,” said Dick Sherry, who was president of the Tulsa Audubon Society in the mid-1970s and the Society’s offshoot Mohawk Nature Center Development Inc., which spearheaded creation of what would become Oxley Nature Center.
“That wasn’t one of the best times in Tulsa as far as knowing what to do with solid waste,” he said. “The thought processes that we went through at that time were not our most glorious times.”
Bird Creek makes three sweeping curves on the north side of Mohawk, and Sherry’s memory matched that of plans printed in the Tulsa World in 1976 that showed the future park area and three landfill areas north of Mohawk Boulevard with two labeled as active landfills and one as a former landfill.
“Those little spits of land where the creek meanders, the ones that went farthest to the north were where they once excavated and buried trash for I don’t know how many years,” he said. “I don’t think they were ever thinking the creek could erode and uncover or expose all of that and create a problem.”
He remembered heavy concentrations of gulls attracted by the garbage.
“When they migrated south they fed on the trash and I’m sure that location became a safety concern for the airport with that many birds gathered so close to the flight path,” he said.
At one point a campground area was planned for a portion of the area on the north side of the road.
“I remember talking to (former Center Director, the late) Bob Jennings about doing something there but he said they occasionally found methane bubbling up from the old landfill areas and he felt it wasn’t practical or safe for a camping area or to do much with it other than have the trails and leave it for nature to take care of and continue to decompose and settle over time.”