UPDATED, Jan. 28, 2021, 11:40 a.m.: Updated to reflect that one type of nonresident park permit would exclude Lakes McConaughy and Ogallala, meaning the the current nonresident park permit for statewide access would be the one needed for access to both lakes.
A new bill by state Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango would finally establish a dedicated source of state revenue from annual park permits to operate and improve Lake McConaughy and neighboring Lake Ogallala.
Hughes’ Legislative Bill 336 would collect the lion’s share of that revenue from brand-new out-of-state permits covering only the twin Keith County lakes.
If you’re seeing green right now, be it on dollar bills or Colorado license plates, you should.
It’s high time for a bill like LB 336. Past time.
After all, we’re only discussing Nebraska’s No. 2 — and sometimes No. 1 — tourist attraction.
Lake Mac and the “little lake” on Kingsley Dam’s other side had nearly 2 million visitors in both 2018 and 2019, beating Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo for the state’s 2018 visitation title.
In 2018, 86% of its visitors came from another state. Their cars mostly had green license plates.
You may ask why it’s past high time. Did we mention that Omaha and McConaughy are 300 air miles apart?
It was only a year ago Saturday that hundreds of Lake Mac lovers west of the 100th meridian crammed into McConaughy’s visitors center to give the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission heaping helpings of their minds.
Some of those 1.9 million lake visitors caused a lot of problems over a noisy Fourth of July 2019 that marked McConaughy’s most unruly holiday weekend since the mid-1990s.
Locals rightly complained, and Game and Parks responded — by proposing to greatly restrict camping access for everyone.
Fewer visitors, fewer problems ... and a heck of a lot less money for the economy of Nebraska’s most tourism-dependent county?
Try again, last January’s protesters said.
Game and Parks did, to its credit. With local leaders pitching in, it combined a tighter alcohol ban along McConaughy’s shoreline with pledges to boost law enforcement and visitor services on those holiday weekends.
Just imagine, given COVID-19’s arrival just two months later, what would have happened to Keith County’s 2020 economy had Game and Parks not backed off.
Nonetheless, long-term management issues at McConaughy remain — issues that Hughes’ LB 336 could do much to help solve.
Folks from Colorado and even Wyoming joined western Nebraskans in protesting Game and Parks’ would-be restrictions a year ago.
Ogallala and Keith County naturally take great pride in the massive economic gift bestowed upon them 80 years ago — not to mention having their own western “ocean.” (Try seeing Lake Mac’s western end from the dam when it’s full, and you’ll get the picture.)
But welcoming thousands of Coloradans has never been easy, particularly when the rowdy ones imitate “Animal House” on the beaches.
And Ogallala-area folks have been mostly frustrated for a half-century and more in getting generations of Game and Parks leaders in Lincoln to invest in McConaughy as befits a top statewide tourist draw. The lake’s last major facility upgrades were in the 1990s.
Hughes, who lives in nearby Perkins County, understands the local heartburn — but also the state’s fiscal picture — from his past four years leading the Legislature’s National Resources Committee.
LB 336 would raise fees for statewide nonresident park permits while splitting them into two types. One would continue to allow access to all Game and Parks areas in Nebraska, including the twin Kingsley lakes. The other would exclude Lake Mac and the "little lake."
It also would mandate that a significant percentage of proceeds from the permits including McConaughy and Lake Ogallala permits be used to run and upgrade facilities at both lakes.
Many Coloradans who visit Lake Mac three weekends a year no doubt would opt for LB 336’s proposed annual limited permit over buying up to nine daily ones.
But had LB 336 been in effect in 2018, and had that year’s out-of-state McConaughy visitors bought only daily Lake Mac-only permits, the bill would have yielded nearly $4.8 million for Kingsley’s twin lakes in 2018 alone.
Even half that total would be substantial.
One does need to be careful not to kill Keith County’s golden goose, given that many Coloradans flee their state on summer weekends to avoid higher fees at their own state’s recreation areas.
But Hughes is absolutely right: Nebraska has barely asked the green-plated exodus up Interstate 76 to help pay for Lake Mac’s campgrounds, boat ramps, RV dumps and restrooms. And for some newer things.
By all means, pass LB 336. High time indeed.