Officials inform Inhofe of bulldozed buildings by USDA

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The Fort Reno commissary, circa 1878, stands on the west end of the fort grounds. (Photo by Carol Mowdy Bond)

By Carol Mowdy Bond
Contributing Writer

On October 13, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Grazinglands Research Laboratory at Fort Reno, in a meeting on the USDA main building lawn at Fort Reno, told U.S. Senator James Inhofe that the USDA bulldozed eight buildings that were among the fort structures.

Established in 1874 or 1875, Fort Reno belongs to the USDA and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places which is part of the U.S. National Park Service.

The USDA closed the fort in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any fort buildings, normally open to the public, remain closed.

In August, Marie Hirst, the president of Historic Fort Reno Board, Inc., and the fort museum’s curator, Wendy Ogden, discovered the bulldozed buildings were gone.

Ogden said she had conversations with several USDA employees, as well as one or more employees of the wrecking crews. Ogden said she learned, through these conversations, that the Ben Clark home. the guardhouse/jail, and other well-known buildings are to be bulldozed. In another conversation, this information was verified by Lynda Ozan, who is Oklahoma’s deputy state historic preservation officer.

Since August, when he learned of the controversy between the USDA and county entities with concerns about the bulldozed buildings, Inhofe asked the USDA to cease destructive activities at the fort until the situation could be discussed further. Regardless, when meeting with Inhofe on October 13, USDA officials said they contracted with a crew to power wash and dig up and reset historic gravestones in the cemetery. Hirst said all of this damage was done during August and September.

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Hirst said she called an employee of the State Historic Preservation Office who verified that the USDA did not have a memorandum of agreement authorizing the power washing and digging of the gravestones.

In a letter dated July 2, 2019, Lisa M. Baete, realty specialist with the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado, identified seven buildings the USDA will bulldoze at Fort Reno. The construction dates of the buildings are 1948, 1934, 1934, 1890, 1910, 1890, and 1933.

The National Historic Preservation Act is the federal law that sets legal guidelines/protocol/steps to be taken, by any federal agency with a project or any activity that impacts a historic structure or site. The law created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Section 106 process that a federal agency must follow. The law also created our state’s State Historic Preservation Office. Concerned citizens may read about these laws and guidelines on the internet.

The Section 106 process of the law requires the federal agency, before beginning any activity that may impact a historic structure or site, contact interested parties such as municipalities, Native American tribes, area history groups, and the public, and allow them to weigh in on the situation before the project begins. Then the agency creates a Memorandum of Agreement, but only after consultation with the groups, as well as the State Historic Preservation Office.

The mayor of El Reno, the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes, and the Historic Fort Reno Board, Inc., claim the USDA did not contact them about the bulldozing or cemetery grave desecration. The fort is located on historic Route 66, immediately west of El Reno. Fort Reno sits on land that originally belonged to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe, and the tribe is headquartered in Concho, Canadian County. The Fort Reno board maintains a constant presence at the fort, taking care of the visitor’s center, the fort museum, tours, special activities, fundraising, applying for grants, and other. The museum curator serves on the board.

In a September 22 email, Jan R. Suszkiw, Public Affairs Specialist, Acting Chief, Median Relations Branch, Office of Communications, Agricultural Research Service, USDA in Maryland, said, “In 2017, USDA conducted a survey of El Reno facilities and the 14 buildings scheduled for demolition were found to be unsafe, uninhabitable and unable to be preserved.” Suszkiw said, “Permits were obtained and a memorandum of agreement was signed in February 2020 between the USDA and the Oklahoma State Historical Preservation Office to proceed with the demolition.”

The memorandum of agreement is titled, “Memorandum of Agreement between the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service and the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office Regarding The Demolition of eight Buildings In El Reno, Canadian County, Oklahoma.” The document was executed on February 11, 2020, when the federal preservation officer Dr. Linda B. Wurzberger in Beltsville, Maryland, signed the document. On February 10, 2020, Dr. Bob Blackburn, the State Historical Preservation Officer in Oklahoma City, and Dr. Kary Stackelbeck, the state archeologist in Norman, signed the document. The document is labeled USDA No. 57-3070-19-140. The document states, “This Memorandum of Agreement will expire if its terms are not carried out within eighteen (18) months from the date of its execution.”

The document begins with the words, “Whereas the Agricultural Research Service plans to carry out the demolition of eight buildings that are contributing resources to the National Register of Historic Places listed Fort Reno Historic District.” The document continues with, “Whereas the Agricultural Research Service has determined the undertaking will have an adverse effect on the Fort Reno Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places.” The document refers to the Section 106 process.

The document does not mention the city of El Reno, nor does it mention the Historic Fort Reno Board, Inc. However, the document states, “The Agricultural Research Service has consulted with the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes, for religious and cultural significance, and no response has been received by the Tribes.” There is no signatory, representing the tribes, on the document.

The document says, “Agricultural Research Services will contract for interpretive signage which describes the history of the buildings in relation to the Fort Reno Historic District. The signage will be placed on ARS Fort Reno land for public viewing.”
One source with the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe said the tribe filed an injunction for the USDA to cease demolition. That source later said the tribe opted not to do so.