Game and Parks Commission walks back proposal to limit camping at Lake McConaughy

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OGALLALA — Hundreds of people showed up for a meeting at the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center on Thursday to protest proposed changes that would drastically limit overnight campers and beachgoers at the lake.

And as it turns out, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was listening. Saturday, the commission said in a news release that it plans to delay consideration of the proposal. 

“We have listened to local citizens, officials and business owners regarding proposed changes, and we heard you. We are going to respond,” said G&P Director Jim Douglas. “We realize we still have important problems to solve, but we are going to take pause in the adoption of the current recommendations to consider the full array of suggestions.”

The proposal from the commission originated after complaints about overcrowding and rowdy behavior last Fourth of July. The changes, which would have taken effect later this year, were meant to lower attendance to address overcrowding on the lake’s beaches.

Under the plan, public access to boat ramps at Lake McConaughy and neighboring Lake Ogallala would remain unchanged. But some stretches of McConaughy’s 22 miles of beaches would be limited to day use, and all camping spaces would be reservation-only and be limited to 600.

‘Historical change’ — State looks to limit camping, crowds at Lake McConaughy

The proposal went far beyond what locals and lake visitors had in mind when they called for change. Most people at Thursday’s meeting said they wanted more law enforcement and greater attention to checkpoints, not a crackdown to limit access to the lake. Critics said the commission’s plan would deliver an economic blow to local businesses.

But Jim Swenson, Game and Parks’ parks division administrator, said explosive growth in the number of annual visitors to Lake McConaughy in recent years — from 500,000 in the 1990s to more than 1 million in 2012 to nearly 2 million last year — forced officials to accelerate greater restrictions on beachfront and camping access.

“It’s not just an issue of more law enforcement,” Swenson said. “It’s an issue that our infrastructure as it exists today isn’t enough to handle the visitation that’s occurring.”

The proposed changes would have lowered estimated annual visits to between 400,000 and 700,000.

The commission said it plans to create a local advisory committee to continue to develop recommendations that will be effective in creating a safe and manageable environment. At its meeting this week, staff will speak with commissioners about the public feedback and provide a report on input received.

“Nebraskans are passionate about outdoor recreation because it is an important part of our quality of life,” Douglas said. “We appreciate the inputs we have received thus far, and we will continue to ask for suggestions on how to best move forward with the many inputs we have to achieve our common goals.”

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