One of Trump’s top candidates for Interior Secretary has a history of selling parks to her campaign donors
By Aaron Weiss
As President-elect Donald Trump fills out his cabinet, one of the most frequently named candidates to head up the Department of the Interior is Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.
What’s less widely known about Fallin is her years-long crusade to sell off Oklahoma’s state parks. It’s a habit that should raise immediate red flags if she takes the helm at Interior, a position which would put her in charge of America’s crown jewels — our national park system.
Under Fallin’s leadership, Oklahoma has disposed of a third of its state park system, going from 50 parks in 2011 to just 32 today. In her first year alone, Fallin permanently closed seven state parks while placing an oil executive from Chesapeake Energy — one of her biggest campaign contributors — in charge of the state’s park system.
Fallin has years of experience selling off Oklahoma’s parks, going all the way back to 2005, when as lieutenant governor she spearheaded a plan to sell Lake Texoma State Park, one of Oklahoma’s most popular destinations, to private developers who promised to build a billion-dollar resort there.
The sale turned into a decade-long debacle that perfectly encapsulates why privatizing America’s public lands is such a terrible idea.
In 2005, Oklahoma agreed to sell 750 acres of Lake Texoma Park to Pointe Vista Development, a company owned by two oil executives: Chesapeake Energy’s Aubrey McClendon and Chaparral Energy’s Mark Fischer.
After getting the ball rolling on the giveaway, Fallin ran for Congress, and McClendon donated $4,200 to her campaign. Once in Washington, she continued her giveaway to McClendon, sponsoring legislation that paved the way for the sale of 227 of those acres to Pointe Vista. The sale went through in 2008, as McClendon kept sending money to Fallin’s campaign.
And then nothing happened.
Well, almost nothing. Pointe Vista tore down the once-popular Lake Texoma Lodge and closed the public golf course. Businesses closed up shop. Visitors stopped coming. The promised luxury resort was never built.
Fallin left Congress for the Oklahoma governor’s mansion in 2011, and despite the lack of progress at Lake Texoma, she immediately set out to take more parks away from Oklahomans. She appointed Deby Snodgrass to lead the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, which runs the state park system. Before joining the Fallin administration, Snodgrass headed the Public Affairs department at — no surprise here — Chesapeake Energy.
Fallin and Snodgrass quickly moved to shut down seven state parks. One of them, Boggy Depot, was the site of Civil War skirmishes and contained the burial site of the Choctaw chief who coined the word “Oklahoma.” Faced with the imminent closure, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations took over the park.
In 2014, Oklahoma’s land office sued Pointe Vista Development for failing to build its promised resort on Lake Texoma. Last year, Fallin announced a settlement: Oklahoma would buy back 50 of the 750 acres and attempt to sell that land to yet another developer in hopes of building a hotel on Lake Texoma. Pointe Vista, Aubrey McClendon’s development company, would keep the rest of the land despite having not lived up to its end of the bargain.
Six months later, Aubrey McClendon was indicted on federal bid-rigging charges. Prosecutors accused him of conspiring to suppress prices on oil and gas leases when he was CEO of Chesapeake Energy. The day after the indictment, due to appear in federal court, McClendon drove his car into a bridge at nearly 90 miles per hour while not wearing a seat belt.
Mary Fallin’s privatization agenda has been a complete failure. In 2011, her office touted “many opportunities to privatize state assets,” including 700,000 acres of land, plus state parks, lodges, and golf courses. Because Lake Texoma received federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Oklahoma is obligated under federal law to replace the land it sold and provide Oklahomans with equivalent access to recreation, hunting, and fishing. As governor, Mary Fallin has made no attempt to comply with the law or create new outdoor recreation opportunities for the people of Oklahoma.
The Chickasaw Nation is now attempting to build a casino and hotel on those 50 acres Oklahoma bought back from Pointe Vista. Pointe Vista Development has not announced any plans for the 700 acres it bought from the people of Oklahoma nearly a decade ago, with Mary Fallin’s assistance and encouragement.
Mary Fallin is now on the short list of candidates to run the Department of Interior in a Trump administration. If nominated and confirmed, she would be responsible for the oversight of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and all of America’s national parks.