Geiser: NGPC expands camping opportunities

The Memorial Day holiday is the official start of summer. Be sure to keep it safe, use guidelines for COVID-19, show common courtesy, and have fun during this three-day weekend.

Just in time for the first holiday weekend of the summer the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will open first-come, first-served camping starting today at Smith Falls State Park, 35 state recreation areas and wildlife management areas for all camping units, including tents.

Many variables brought the decision into fruition: The demand for camping opportunities, the challenges in bringing additional park locations and campsites into the reservation system as planned and public comments regarding the desire to camp without normal facilities, which will remain closed. Those include shower houses, designated swimming beaches, playgrounds and park activities. A limited number of primitive restrooms will be available.

A news release was given to the public on Wednesday of this week, below are some regulations and words from the Game and Parks director regarding camping in Nebraska.

Park regulations allow for up to eight people per campsite. The 35 state recreation areas that will be open include Alexandria, Bluestem, Box Butte, Bridgeport, Buffalo Bill, Cheyenne, Conestoga, Cottonwood Lake, Dead Timber, Enders, Gallagher Canyon, Keller Park, Lake Maloney, Long Pine, Memphis, North Loup, Olive Creek, Pelican Point, Red Willow, Riverview Marina, Rock Creek Lake, Rockford, Sandy Channel, Sherman, Stagecoach, Summit, Sutherland, Swanson, Union Pacific, Verdon, Wagon Train, Walgren Lake, War Axe and Wildcat Hills.

Mormon Island State Recreation Area near Grand Island and Danish Alps SRA near Hubbard will not offer camping, as they are near communities with high COVID-19 incidence.

Game and Parks will open camping on wildlife management areas where it was allowed previous to the COVID-19 health emergency to help distribute camping activity.

“We made the earlier decision to allow limited RV camping, by reservation only, consistent with health directives that encourage limitations on crowd size and our current capacity to protect and serve the public,” Game and Parks Director Jim Douglas said. “We are pleased to be able to offer more opportunities on smaller park areas that typically attract less people. Busier areas such as Branched Oak Lake, Medicine Creek Reservoir and Lake McConaughy, which attract larger crowds, will retain RV camping by reservation only for the time being. As we continue to be able to add needed seasonal personnel and provide for facility maintenance, we will expand further opportunities while managing within the constraints of the ongoing health emergency.”

The prevailing health recommendations for social distancing and group sizes less than 10 to meet the state Directed Health Measures still apply, and it’s incumbent upon park visitors to be responsible for their own actions to protect their health, the health of their community and that of other park users.

For the park locations in the online reservation system, camping will continue to be limited to advanced reservation at outdoornebraska.gov/reservations, and only for self-contained recreational vehicles. No first-come, first-served camping is allowed at these locations, and no tents will be allowed at this time, but expanded camping may be allowed in the near future. These areas are: Branched Oak, Calamus, Chadron, Eugene T. Mahoney, Fort Kearney, Fort Robinson, Fremont, Indian Cave, Johnson Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lake Minatare, Lake Ogallala, Lewis and Clark, Louisville, Medicine Creek Reservoir, Merritt Reservoir, Niobrara, Pawnee, Platte River, Ponca, Rock Creek Station, Two Rivers, Victoria Springs, Willow Creek and Windmill state recreation areas, state parks and state historical parks.

Game and Parks cautiously will phase in additional park services and amenities in consort with health directives and advice from health departments.

Frequently asked questions

There are many questions from outdoor enthusiasts regarding regulations at a state park or recreation area during this time. To find answers to your questions, visit the Commission’s FAQ’s page at outdoornebraska.gov/parksfaqs/.

Some frequently asked questions are answered here: boating activities, including skiing and tubing, are allowed as long as all boating regulations are followed, and guests practice social spacing at all times, including at boat launch ramps. Pulling boats onto sandy areas for day- use activities is permitted in areas not designated as public beaches, which are currently closed, but guests are reminded to practices social spacing and not exceeding the present 10-person group size recommendation. Overnight camping is not allowed on the waterfront areas at this time.

Designated beach and swimming areas are temporarily closed and swimming is not allowed in any areas outside of designated swimming areas. Those areas are typically identified by posted signs at the location. The areas also typically have floatation markers at the perimeter of the swim/wading zone to prevent watercraft from entering that area.

Waterfront areas are any other areas not designated as beach or swimming areas and are regulated by Park Regulation 001.20 that disallows swimming or wading outside of a designated area. Waterfront areas will remain open to the public and will be posted with signs. The Commission retains ability to close those areas to public access if the Commission deems that action to be necessary in the best interests of the public or resource. Group size and spacing recommendations will be monitored.

Park guests will still be able to fish from the shore as long as it is not within a buoyed or closed area of the shoreline. Social distancing and group size limits will still prevail.

Pets are allowed as long as the pet remains attended to and leashed on a leash no longer that 6 feet in length, while at the park.

Weekend safety

As the first holiday of the summer season kicks off, safety should be a first priority for everyone that goes outdoors for the extended weekend. Be sure use social distancing as we are all facing a new way to be outside this year. Also, exercise courtesy and patience at boat ramps and campgrounds so that everyone can have an enjoyable and safe holiday.

Always keep an eye on the sky for severe weather. Severe weather can hit quickly, if you are on the water in a vessel, be sure to be safe and get off the water before a storm hits.

Boaters and personal watercraft users need to use extreme caution this weekend. Before you go read the 2020 boating guide and know the rules and regulations like the state waterway markers, right of way and navigation rules, unlawful practices and never go boating under the influence.

Anyone born after December 31, 1985, is required to successfully complete a Boating Safety Course and possess a course certificate while operating a boat or personal watercraft. You must be at least 14 years of age to operate a motorboat or personal watercraft in Nebraska. The boater education course is available online at outdoornebraska.gov/boatereducation/.

Everyone wants to get out and enjoy time on a boat or personal watercraft; please stay level-headed near crowded boat ramps, no one wants their weekend ruined by heated confrontations, a little courtesy can go a long way toward ensuring an enjoyable outing for everyone. To avoid problems, have everything ready to go before you pull onto any boat ramp. Have all of your gear in the boat, hookup the gas tank, don’t forget the plug and make a safe but quick boat ramp visit.

Be sure your boat is in good running order and have the equipment you need to make your boat legal before you go. Carry a flotation device for each person on board your boat and a type IV throwable device. Keep in mind no child age 12 or under is allowed aboard any vessel when not wearing a life preserver of suitable size – the boat operator is responsible for compliance.

Voluntary firewood restriction

A campfire is an important part of your recreation experience at Nebraska state parks and recreation areas. However, whenever firewood is transported any distance, it can harbor the emerald ash borer or other invasive pests that are harmful to Nebraska woodlands and landscapes. Please help prevent the spread of invasive pests by acquiring firewood within 50 miles of your destination and burning all of it rather than transporting to another location.

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