The federal government is tearing down more than a dozen buildings at historic Fort Reno in Canadian County.
The former Army post established in 1875 is now owned by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Leaders at the Historic Fort Reno Museum claim the USDA used COVID-19 as an excuse to keep them off the property as demolition began.
“It has been two weeks since I’ve been here and I walked into wrecking crews and structures being reduced to rubble,” museum director Wendy Ogden said.
“They’re in the process of destroying history and we can’t get it back,” museum board president Marie Hearst said.
According to the USDA, 14 buildings are slated to be demolished, eight have historic designations, two were built in 1890.
In filings with the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, the department said “USDA-ARS does not have the funds to complete the needed repairs/renovations in order to make these buildings operational for research purposes.”
“When you don’t have the funds or you don’t do the maintenance, we call it deferred maintenance,” Deputy State Preservation Officer Lynda Ozan said. “Well, deferred maintenance is really no maintenance and when that happens for long enough, the buildings start to fail. So, the roofs fail, the foundations fail, and that’s what has led us to the situation.”
“The USDA gets maintenance money from the U.S. government to maintain this property,” Hearst said. “I feel like there’s a huge amount of neglect here.”
Congressman Frank Lucas said in a statement he and Senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford are looking into the demolition.
“The USDA understands the importance of maintaining the historical value of the El Reno property and continues to maintain and upgrade existing buildings to keep El Reno functional and operational for decades to come,” A USDA Spokesperson said. “However, the buildings currently being demolished pose a serious risk to employees and visitors to El Reno.”
The department said a 2017 inspection found the buildings to be “unsafe, uninhabitable and unable to be preserved.” They said a demolition plan was presented to the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Archeological Survey, The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Historic Fort Reno Board of Directors.
The Historic Fort Reno Board of Directors said they were never notified. The facility sets on Cheyenne and Arapaho ancestral homeland. A tribal official said it appears they too were never notified.
“The federal agency is the one that’s supposed to talk with the community, talk to the land holders, the people that have interest in the property about what their plans are,” Ozan said. “No matter what federal agency were talking about, that’s their obligation.”
Ozan described the buildings slated for demolition as ancillary. The USDA said they include five coal houses, a hay barn, garage and machine shop.
“It is the start of reducing major historic structures on this site to rubble and removing them from the property,” Ogden said. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”