Hundreds pack open house to protest Lake McConaughy changes

Hundreds of people from western Nebraska and nearby Colorado poured into the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center Thursday afternoon for a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission open house on changes meant to lower attendance and reduce disorder at the state’s No. 2 tourist attraction. Attendees in this photo include Buck Bassett (center, in New York Yankees cap), retired Ogallala fire chief and former mayor, pushing his wife, Jacque.

OGALLALA — Keith County residents demanded change after last year’s rowdy Fourth of July at Lake McConaughy, a frustration born from their love-hate relationship with the increasing thousands who have made the lake Nebraska’s No. 2 tourist attraction.

Change is on the table — far beyond what they had in mind.

A Nebraska Game and Parks Commission proposal to cordon off the lake’s prized beaches into reserved camping and designated “day use” spaces choked the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center Thursday for a public “open house.”

Hundreds of people from western Nebraska and Colorado — the latter the longtime source of locals’ summertime joys and irritations — crammed every corner of the center’s main lobby to warn against wrecking the county’s economy and McConaughy’s character as a “people’s lake.”

“Our grandparents camped here before there were campers,” said Penny Hilzer of Scottsbluff, who attended with cousin Debra Thomsen of Torrington, Wyoming, and Thomsen’s brother-in-law Gary Davidson of Scottsbluff.

Their family has had a reunion at McConaughy every year for more than 40 years, Hilzer said. “I feel like the number of park permits sold and the money they’re collecting for camping fees should be available for (law) enforcement so everyone can enjoy” the lake.

Public access to boat ramps at McConaughy and neighboring Lake Ogallala would remain undisturbed under the plan. But day-use areas would be defined, and all camping spaces would be reservation-only and be limited to 600, said Jim Swenson, Game and Parks’ parks division administrator.

Even as the visitor center filled up, four Game and Parks commissioners met in another room with nine Ogallala and Keith County leaders who urged them not to rush the plan to approval at the commission’s monthly meeting Wednesday in Lincoln.

Some local leaders emerged expressing hope for renewed cooperation to avert economic disaster for lakeside and Ogallala businesses.

Mary Wilson, executive director of Keith County Area Development, said the meeting was arranged by her and Brittany Hardin, a 1998 Ogallala High School graduate and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ central Nebraska representative.

“I think the basic message is that safety is our No. 1 concern at the lake, and the quality the (tourist) experience is important, but we also need to step back and evaluate the economic impact,” Wilson said.

The direction taken by Game and Parks’ proposal to restrict access, she added, “is not what everyone had in mind.”

Dan Kreitman of Wahoo, the commission’s incoming 2020 chairman, said delays and alterations to the plan are possible at and after next week’s meeting.

“We have a plan, but we’re realizing we need to look at this plan in more depth and include the local business people,” said Kreitman, who owns a ranch near Chadron. “We want to have a minimal effect on the (local) economy — as minimal as possible.”

It’s hardly the first time in the lake’s 79-year history that behavior at McConaughy has gotten out of hand.

Many residents remember the summer of 1995, when an alcohol-fueled brawl involving 150 people broke out at Martin Bay. Local and state law enforcement cracked down, and Game and Parks imposed a ban on alcohol consumption on McConaughy’s 22 miles of coveted sandy beaches.

Annual visits, then estimated at just under 500,000, grew slowly as a turn-of-the-millennium drought drained McConaughy to record lows by 2004. But the lake’s return to full capacity in 2011 caused attendance to explode, topping 1 million for the first time in 2012 and passing 1.9 million in both 2018 and 2019.

Visitors from Colorado, a longtime major supplier of lake traffic, swelled along with city and county tax coffers. But local residents say Coloradans are increasingly bringing and using both alcohol and marijuana — legal now in their state, but still illegal in Nebraska — and being increasingly disrespectful to law enforcement and campers.

Local and regional campers protesting restrictions on their access also complained about people flooding campsites after park checkpoints were closed.

Rhonda Matousek of Ogallala, who is circulating an online petition against the changes, said she and her friend Monica Stutzman saw late-night arrivals last Independence Day weekend trying to pitch their tents within 2 feet of their camper’s door.

“She and I were up all night saying (to people), ‘You cannot camp here,’” Matousek said.

Law enforcement and first responders were especially overwhelmed that weekend. Two women were run over by vehicles, a 6-year-old girl had to be resuscitated on the beach, and a fight ended in the death of 31-year-old Justin Borowski of Grant. Timothy L. Walker of Brighton, Colorado, has pleaded not guilty to felony manslaughter in the case.

Though local frustration boiled over after that hectic weekend, people at Thursday’s open house said they wanted more law enforcement and greater attention to checkpoints — not a crackdown on everyone’s ability to enjoy the lake.

But Swenson, Game and Parks’ parks chief, said the exponential growth in McConaughy visits forced them to accelerate greater restrictions on beachfront and camping access envisioned in a 20-year management plan adopted in 2017.

“It’s not just an issue of more law enforcement,” Swenson said. “It’s an issue that our infrastructure as it exists today isn’t enough to handle the visitation that’s occurring.”

Game and Parks’ envisioned 600 camping spaces includes 310 permanent ones already in place and 290 carved out on and near the beaches. Swenson estimated that the proposed changes could cut peak daily attendance from 25,000 to between 5,000 and 7,500.

That would roughly lower estimated annual visits to the 400,000-to-700,000 range generally seen from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s — though local and state officials cautioned that exact attendance figures have long been elusive.

Local businesses have issued grave warnings about the impact of losing two-thirds to three-fourths of McConaughy’s recent record attendance — including a possible end to the 55-year-old Crystal Palace Revue at Ogallala’s Front Street, Nebraska’s longest-running summer stock show.

Co-owner Kathleen Bauer said Front Street, which memorializes Ogallala’s 1875-1885 cowtown heritage, gets 70% of its annual business between May and September. “If we lose the lake, we’re going to lose the shows,” Bauer said in a Keith County News story Monday.

Some local residents said the sudden emergence of Game and Parks’ proposal early this month gave the appearance of a cut-and-dried deal. Some were disgruntled by the format of Thursday’s open house, at which commission employees answered questions at display tables instead of holding a public forum.

Dissatisfaction spilled over onto the floor of the Legislature Monday and Tuesday, when state Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard — who represents Keith County — and Dan Hughes of Venango filibustered a routine Game and Parks bill making a variety of minor changes.

Erdman, who drove from Lincoln to the open house after senators adjourned at noon Thursday, said the McConaughy plan figured prominently in his and Hughes’ criticism. He’ll keep blocking the agency’s bill (Legislative Bill 287) if it isn’t altered with help from “everybody that’s got skin in the game.”

“I said on the floor, ‘Don’t blame the board of directors,’” Erdman said, meaning the elected Game and Parks commissioners. “Those people don’t have all the information.”

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