First, the good news: There’s going to be more dialogue about how to manage Lake McConaughy.
Last week’s uproar over a plan to address holiday overcrowding and rowdiness by sharply limiting the lake’s camping and beach access ended Saturday with word that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will table it.
In the wake of Thursday’s “open house” that drew hundreds of protesters from three states, Ogallala and Keith County leaders will have more time to collaborate with Game and Parks to better control Lake Mac visitation without wrecking the local economy.
It took some doing, to be sure, but our part of the state was heard in time.
Let’s be sure to thank Game and Parks leaders just as energetically as we objected to their plan and the way it was presented.
There remain some strong words to be said, though, to our eastern Nebraska neighbors.
Folks who refuse to discuss and shape needed change because they’re convinced every plan is a “done deal” won’t be dissuaded by how the Lake Mac plan was suddenly rolled out, on a short track to approval, as this month and year began.
Until Saturday’s happier ending, this story was amounting to the latest chapter of “Nebraska: It’s a 50-Mile State.”
One sentence at the end of the original plan was the essence of tone-deafness: “If occupancy is full, Nebraska has 75 other state park and recreation areas to choose from.”
Many a westerner must have thought: Where did you have in mind? Mahoney Park near Omaha?
By most every local estimate, the agency’s initial answer to last year’s unruly Fourth of July amounted to an economic bomb set to sprout a virtual sign amid the wreckage saying “Lake McConaughy: Honestly, It’s Not for Most of You.”
Well, maybe it can’t be, especially if the state doesn’t invest funds it most certainly could earn back to patrol Nebraska’s largest lake and expand Lake Mac’s visitor facilities beyond the last major 1990s upgrades. But more on that in a moment.
We haven’t yet covered what western Nebraskans, along with Wyoming and Colorado lake patrons, went through Thursday at the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center.
Instead of a formal presentation with public comment — all of which would have spiked blood pressures — they got display tables and comment cards six days before Game and Parks’ Lincoln board meeting this Wednesday.
They also got perhaps the worst-managed public forum of any kind in recent memory in these parts.
The visitor center’s main lobby and aquarium was so packed when it started that people struggled to move between tables to unload their frustrations on local and state Game and Parks officials.
Ironically, talks with local leaders that contributed to Saturday’s decision to table the Lake Mac plan were going on elsewhere in the building while visitors shuffled about, vented and left large pieces of their minds on the comment cards.
All’s well that begins well. But here’s the truth: Change still must happen, though hopefully not such drastic change.
No tourist attraction, anywhere, can handle 1.9 million visits a year without spending what it takes to accommodate them.
Nebraskans want their governments, state and local, to maximize profits on the cheap. The day when that was possible at McConaughy is long gone.
If western Nebraskans (not merely Ogallala and Keith County) want to reap riches from the lake, we must not just welcome all those people. We’ve also got to spend our fair share, individually and collectively, to house and manage them. Or get used to a lot fewer of them.
The same choice faces our state leaders.
One of the most appalling stories told Thursday — beyond the lawlessness and disrespect of too many Lake Mac visitors — was how many a camper cheats the park-permit system by streaming in late at night, and even early morning, when checkpoints are closed.
Just how much money in permit sales, not to mention camping fees, is Game and Parks losing because the agency or spendthrift state leaders won’t spend enough to collect it and take care of Lake Mac and its visitors?