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Changes bring happy campers to Lake McConaughy

OGALLALA, Neb. — In registering visitors for campsites, Nebraska’s largest reservoir sailed uncharted waters in 2021. The predominant verdict is that it was a highly successful voyage.

Last April, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission implemented changes needed to create a safer, family-friendly environment at the 22-mile-long Lake McConaughy and the smaller reservoir below its dam, Lake Ogallala.

One change was requiring reservations during the peak season for camping at the two state recreation areas. The new system, largely implemented to combat problems of overcrowding, marked a monumental shift from prior years when beachgoers could show up and place a tent or camper into any vacant spot along Lake McConaughy’s expansive, often crowded, sandy shoreline.

The new strategy meant visitors could choose from Game and Parks’ 1,500 designated sites — 500 of which are in nine campgrounds, and another 1,000 spots at 17 beach areas.

The popularity of Lake McConaughy, owned by the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and managed for recreation by Game and Parks, has long posed a challenge. Many of the lake’s hundreds of thousands of visitors each year come from Colorado’s Front Range, where many see it as the nearest place to enjoy recreational opportunities most often found at coastal settings.

Such a large area attracts a diverse set of users. The excellent fishery attracts anglers. The big, open water attracts a variety of boaters and personal watercraft users.

Campgrounds attract groups of friends and families. Wildlife attracts hunters and other conservationists. Sailboaters, picnickers, wind surfers and scuba divers are also in the mix. The park often was overcrowded and congested, overburdening park infrastructure, and groups of unruly partiers sometimes demanded the most attention.

This year’s changes came about after collaborative discussion by the Game and Parks Commission and a local advisory committee that included business leaders, concession operators, lake residents, park guests, area first-responders, local tourism and economic development officials and the Keith County Chamber of Commerce. The committee is open to anyone who wants to attend.

Officials say the positive outcomes have exceeded even their expectations, resulting in better control, an increased ability to collect fees, improved collection of visitor information, capital improvements, and opportunities for visitation growth.

Better control

Perhaps the primary proponents of the changes are the law enforcement and emergency personnel tasked with responding to crime and emergencies at the big lake.

The equipment for the fire and rescue service for the two villages at the north shore of the big lake, Keystone and Lemoyne, reflects how the complexity of calls has evolved during the past four decades. In that period, it has grown from just two fire engines to six, plus two rescue boats, three ATVs and UTVs, and rope rescue and dive rescue equipment.

The 21-member department reported far fewer emergency calls from park visitors last year. Just three of the calls, an all-time low, involved drugs and alcohol. That figure is usually in the double digits.

Ralph Moul, the department’s chief, has long been a proponent of reducing crowd sizes and banning alcohol — done in 2020 — to alleviate the many stresses on limited infrastructure and personnel. He said 2021 was a huge improvement.

“It’s like night and day compared to previous years. Our call volume was cut in half,” he said. “We have a different crowd here now. We have the family people back. I’m very pleased with what has been accomplished, but it needs to continue.”

Craig Stover, Game and Parks’ law enforcement division administrator, certainly was glad to see the number of incidents involving assaults, domestic violence and vandalism down in 2021.

“The fact that there were fewer people, and they were able to spread out, resulted in fewer squabbles among campers,” he said. “One comment we heard a lot from the public was ‘We’re glad to see so many of you officers out here.’ Well, you know what: When you reduce the size of the crowds, people can see you.”

Because crowd control issues were not demanding as much attention, Stover said the officers were able to deal with more enforcement of fish, game and boating laws.

Fee collection and economic impact

The park reports that its gross revenue is up more than 17 percent from last year — a remarkable figure considering outdoor attractions everywhere experienced unusually high visitation in 2020 from people looking for safe entertainment at the height of pandemic restrictions.

Significant financial indicators are Keith County’s lodging tax and sales tax receipts. From May through September this year, each of the funds experienced a five-year high.

Deb Schilz, mayor of nearby Ogallala, has been supportive of the changes and is looking forward to working with Game and Parks to build on the success and make the parks even more attractive to families.

“I was pleasantly surprised of how few issues there were with the process,” she said. “Most of our lake businesses commented they were on track from 2019 (didn’t count 2020 due to COVID) with their sales higher than 2019. Many business owners received comments on how our visitors enjoyed their experience with knowing where they would be camping and being able to have room for their campers, tents and other belongings.”

Improved tracking

Because visitors are required to reserve campsites through Game and Parks, the agency now has the best demographical data that it has ever had to understand who visits the two parks. While most of the campers are from the Denver area, the park received overnight visitation from all 50 states and beyond. Having such data is beneficial to Game and Parks, businesses, and others who market nearby attractions.

Even though many campers feared they would not be able to make last-minute plans to stay at the parks, officials say that was not necessarily the case. The parks’ electrical sites were booked weeks in advance, but aside from the season’s three busy holiday weekends, campsites without hook-ups, including beach sites, still were available every Friday.

Those sites usually did fill by the end of the day Friday. The park also experienced an increased number of campers during weekdays. Park staff say spreading its visitation over more days is preferable.

Expanded camping

Given the successes, to accommodate more campers, Game and Parks has contracted with eight concessionaires to manage additional campsites around the lake. The goal is to continue growing those offerings at a sustainable pace, supporting economic development and meeting consumer demand.

Future of investment

Part of the successes have included major investments by Game and Parks over the past five years. About $14 million in improvements have been made in campground, boating access and road improvements — all in line with goals set out in the Lake McConaughy master plan launched in 2016.

If Game and Parks sees continued growth and demand at the recreation areas, it will bring continued need for investments in infrastructure, facilities and services to provide the best opportunities. Changing to the reservation-only system means Game and Parks now can better predict its staffing needs and costs, such as trash collection — one of the major service expenses for the parks. Changes to park entry permits by the Nebraska Legislature also mean Game and Parks will see added revenue through higher nonresident park entry permit fees, effective in 2022, helping to offset any new expenses, including to build or maintain infrastructure.

Other successes have created a win for two threatened and endangered species and for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which is tasked with protecting terns and plovers to maintain its operating license. Creating designated beach campsites in 2021 reduced the tern and plover nest site disturbances that have long threatened the species’ survival.

The right course

Comments from the public overwhelmingly have been positive, but concerns have been fielded from a small number of businesses that reported decreased revenue in 2021. However, many locals and visitors say the changes were overdue.

Frequent lake visitor Kelly Rohrbouck of North Platte suspects there are many more supporters of the changes than opponents, even if they are not as vocal. Her family of four now spends its summers in a trailer at Lake McConaughy, a purchase they made after five years of camping at Lake Ogallala and crossing the dam to McConaughy for fishing and other day use.

“First and foremost, I feel safer,” she said. “Crowds are still common, but seem to be manageable and less confrontational. Also, the ease of being able to find a spot on the water where I didn’t feel like a jerk setting up my day-use stuff virtually on top of someone — or five different groups huddled around a sliver of land — was amazing.”

Even though the initial reviews are extremely positive, longtime law enforcement and emergency responders have not declared victory because of one year’s results. Having seen problems at the lake ebb and flow like coastal waters over the years, they temper their optimism with cautiousness.

Similar to those who take the helm of sailboats at the big water of Lake McConaughy, officials consider changes in management strategy an exciting — albeit challenging — adventure. Complications may arise, but officials believe they, and their partners, are on the right course.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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