A former Scout’s Rest Ranch superintendent told the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Thursday he hopes possible new features will give locals fresh reasons to visit William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s home.
A proposed visitors center and other projects suggested for a Scout’s Rest master plan could “drastically increase visitation, especially locally,” said Aric Riggins, the agency’s superintendent for southwest Nebraska parks.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 people visit Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park each year, but 85% are from out of state and 5% from other countries, Riggins said.
“People (locally) know it’s there. They’ve been there once,” he told commission members. “They need a reason to come back.”
Riggins briefly reviewed master-plan ideas presented in an online public forum Sept. 23 before taking Game and Parks board members to tour Cody’s ranch and the adjoining Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area.
The nine-member commission reviewed various statewide projects during an information-only meeting at North Platte Community College’s North Campus that opened its last regular meeting of 2021.
They’ll reconvene there at 8 a.m. Friday for their business meeting, which includes an 8:30 a.m. public hearing and possible vote on whether to raise nonresident park permit fees to twice the cost of resident permits.
That would implement the intent of this year’s Legislative Bill 336, introduced by state Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango to try to generate more money for visitor improvements at Lakes McConaughy and Ogallala.
The Scout’s Rest planning process isn’t to the point of finalizing ideas or estimating costs, Riggins said in answering a question from commission member Scott Cas sels of Omaha.
The most prominent addition would be a modern visitors center on the site of a “T-barn” built east of the horse barn in 1891. It burned down in a March 1904 prairie fire.
A parking lot and child-oriented “nature playscape” would be built south of the visitors center, Riggins said.
A nature trail would be installed to the east, including a raised platform from which visitors could view sandhill cranes in season.
Leaders of September’s virtual forum said the visitors center would relieve pressure on the 1886 Cody mansion by taking on visitor services and displaying Buffalo Bill artifacts not directly related to the mansion.
“We’re using it for a lot of different uses and not being really protective of that historic structure,” Riggins told Game and Parks board members Thursday.
Member Rick Brandt of rural Roca expressed concern for preserving the historicity of Scout’s Rest, which came under state ownership in 1961 after local residents matched a $37,500 state appropriation.
“Why so modern?” Brandt said of the visitor center concepts. “Hell, this is a hundred-year-old place.”
Riggins replied that none of the master-plan concepts would affect the ranch’s western 7½-acre heart, including the mansion and horse barn. That area gained National Historic Landmark status earlier this year.
The visitors center’s conceptual drawings would evoke the T-barn but not try to duplicate it, he said, because few pictures and no plans of that structure survive.
Another master-plan idea would redesign the recreation area entrance at Buffalo Bill Avenue and Scout’s Rest Ranch Road to serve as the main entrance for both parks.
Most online forum participants liked the various concepts, Riggins said, but 57% of those responding to an online survey thought the visitors center would be too far from the main part of the 23-acre historical park.
The T-barn site sits about 200 yards east of the horse barn and 350 yards from the mansion, he said in answering a question from commission member Donna Kush of Omaha.
“It seems like a long way, depending on the weather, even though it’s a quarter-mile,” Kush replied.
The closer of the two parking lots nearest the mansion would remain to preserve access for people with disabilities, Riggins said.
A Western-themed shooting gallery proposed for the west end of the recreation area could attract not only avid archers and shooters but also touring cowboy shooting and fast-draw events, said Riggins and outgoing commission Director Jim Douglas.
It would reflect “the time you’re talking about, which could be pretty cool to do,” said Douglas, who will retire in November. He began his Game and Parks career at the North Platte fish hatchery in 1974.
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