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State parks surged during COVID, but cabin closures, limits cost Nebraska Game and Parks millions
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State parks surged during COVID, but cabin closures, limits cost Nebraska Game and Parks millions

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Nebraskans and nonresidents trying to cure their coronavirus cabin fever last year looked to the outdoors — in record numbers.

The state Game and Parks Commission sold nearly 144,000 annual park permits in 2020, or 20,000 more than the year before and the most since 2000.

It issued 125,000 annual resident fishing licenses, 32,500 more than in 2019 and the highest number since 2001.

It sold 184,000 daily park passes to out-of-staters, 64,000 more than the previous year, and more than 27,000 nonresident daily fishing licenses, the most ever.

And it all made sense to Jim Swenson, the commission’s parks administrator. In a year when virus-related rules seemed to shrink the state — limiting where Nebraskans could go, and what they could do — the commission continued to offer thousands of acres of fresh air.

“The park areas were always open,” he said.

Mahoney State Park, 1.27

Owen Marina on Baright Lake is seen at Mahoney State Park.

Almost across the board, pass and permit sales were up over last year and, in some cases, all previous years. Antelope licenses? Highest ever. Resident daily fishing licenses? Highest ever. Mountain lion applications? 30% more.

Even the so-called iron rangers — the drop boxes at more remote recreation areas — collected a 235% increase in entry fees. More users than ever were discovering, or rediscovering, these unstaffed recreation areas, like Rock Creek Lake near Benkelman, Walgren Lake near Hay Springs and Danish Alps in Dakota County, Swenson said.

“The fact that permit sales were spiking and growing in those areas was a bit surprising.”

But despite the surge in demand, the commission’s 2020 numbers depict a good news-bad timing scenario. “I describe it with a bit of irony, to be honest with you,” Swenson said.

Here’s why: When people wanted the park system the most, the state couldn’t give them most of the park system, at least not early in the pandemic.

“We were becoming the most relevant opportunity on the landscape,” Swenson said. “And we had limitations we had to sort through, all for proper caution.”

The commission wasn’t immune to coronavirus-related restrictions, and the steps it took to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect staff and guests cost it nearly $4.5 million in revenue, the bulk of it from unrented cabins and empty lodges.

Mahoney State Park, 1.27

A cabin in Mahoney State Park. 

In March, the commission closed its visitor centers and playgrounds. Then it shut its 230 cabins and lodge rooms. Next came its 11,000 campsites and, later, its swimming beaches.

It was following state directed health measures, seeking advice from public health departments and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, Swenson said.

Despite the limited closures, it made some financial gains. Tent and RV camping was up nearly $600,000 over last year. Annual park entry sales were up nearly $650,000.

So while the game side of Game and Parks — hunting and fishing — generated more than $27 million, or $763,000 more than in 2019, the parks side earned just short of $22.4 million, or $4.4 million less than the year before.

And 2019 wasn’t even a good year for comparison, Swenson said, because the state’s widespread flooding put a dent in park attendance that year.

The commission had enough of a reserve that it can weather the consecutive economic blows, so it hasn’t had to seek additional funding, and it didn’t have to make any layoffs, Swenson said. It did save money by not filling all of its positions it would normally need for a busy summer season.

It also kept its employees busy during the closures and limits, catching up on maintenance, painting and patching worn equipment.

His staff can get too busy to keep up during normal years.

“We made full use of the time we had to get ahead. That’s one of the positive sides of the scenario: It gave us an opportunity to help improve our facilities.”


Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter


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