Access needed to site of the barracks at Tule Lake

None of the 24,000 Japanese Americans sent to live in the shallow volcanic lakebed of Tule Lake for the duration of World War II wanted to be there, but their presence makes this a National Historic Landmark.

In hindsight, an airstrip operating on a site of this historic significance is not an appropriate or compatible use, but before anyone could know that, the government after the war granted homestead rights to farmers, and in 1951 granted two-thirds of the main detention and barracks site to the city of Tulelake for an airstrip, which today hosts just one business, a crop-dusting service. It’s not easy to see without an aerial view, but the airstrip runs left to right in the photo below.

airstrip at Tule Lake

In the historic aerial photo below, inside the blue line look for the diagonal open space between the barracks, from lower left to upper right. That’s where the airstrip now exists. Now imagine an 8- to 10-foot high fence, topped with three strands of barbed wire, surrounding the airstrip along the blue line. That’s what visitors would see, and the area which would be off-limits to them, if a fence proposed for the airport were erected.

Outline of proposed fence at Tulelake Airport
The outlines of the Tule Lake National Monument and of the Tulelake Municipal Airport are superimposed on a wartime photo of the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Artwork by Evan Johnson.

The National Park Service is now developing a new master plan for the Tule Lake historic site, and in my testimony to them I will support
Alternative C
. That’s the plan on the table to create the kind of National Park experience that would provide access to and interpret the story which makes Tule Lake unique. It’s the plan that would  stabilize the structures at the CCC isolation camp, restore  the notorious Tule Lake Jail, build a replica guard tower, and open the physical site for year-round visitation.

But I believe the NPS and the FAA should go further. As you can see inside the green line above, the National Historic Landmark preserves only a fraction of the historic Tule Lake concentration camp site – 37 of the 908 acres developed for the camp Administrative area and the barracks.

Access means enabling visitors to hike up to Castle Rock, on what’s known as The Peninsula. From that height, visitors can survey the enormity of the landscape where 24,000 souls were incarcerated, solely on the basis of race. For me, it was also a chance to relive the experience of incarcerees who made that same hike in 1942, before segregation.

Access also means making it possible for visitors to walk, at ground level, on the same lands where families once endured incarceration and segregation — to identify where a particular block or barrack was located, and to experience the size and dimension of the entire segregation center.

That ground was made hallowed by the pain of those who suffered the loss of their civil and constitutional rights, and the demands for proof of loyalty made by the government and their own community leaders, known by the acronym JACL. Tule Lake is of national significance because it was the only segregation center — the camp where the government used a capricious and incompetently administered loyalty questionnaire to create so-called disloyals, 5,600 of whom were stripped of their citizenship to legalize their deportation to Japan after the war.

airstrip signSo here the NPS must navigate a collision of values.

It will not be easy, but an airstrip can be moved. An historic site and a collective experience cannot.

It won’t be easy, but I encourage the NPS to work with the FAA to create a plan that respects the interests of homesteaders, and perhaps even enhances them, at a different but nearby location. Such a plan could relocate the crop-dusting service to the airport at Malin, Oregon, nine miles away.  Such a plan could involve a swap with unused federal land, and funds for capital improvements at a site that is unencumbered by history.

It won’t be easy, but I encourage the NPS to develop a win-win solution that is meaningful for local residents and visitors from across the nation. See you at the final public meetings this week in Seattle, Portland, and Hood River.

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