VALENTINE, Neb. — Some of Nebraska's loneliest state recreation areas and historical parks are about to get a lot quieter.
Twenty-nine low-visitation sites in Nebraska's park system will be temporarily closed until next spring as the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission grapples with catching up with more than $30 million in deferred maintenance work statewide.
All services and vehicle access to 24 state recreation areas and five state historical parks will be closed beginning as early as mid-September. People will be allowed to walk into the grounds of closed recreational areas, but buildings will not be open or services provided.
Instead of serving visitors, workers at the closed sites will focus on chores on-site or elsewhere. Their first focus will be building new pit toilets that meet current environmental and disability-access standards for campgrounds and recreation areas.
Game and Parks Director Jim Douglas said the lack of sustainable funding to operate and maintain a quality state park system forced the decision to close the sites.
“Game and Parks is running out of options,” he said. “We hope the public and our park visitors will understand we are doing everything we can to shore up our infrastructure.''
The commission has reduced services at some recreation areas in recent years, such as eliminating trash pickup and mowing only twice a year, but this is the first time sites have been closed, said Roger Kuhn, parks administrator.
Seventy percent of the park system's operating budget comes from user fees, largely park entry permits. The permits generated $5.5 million last year.
The park permit requirement began in 1978, but was never designed to fund larger infrastructure needs of an aging parks system, Kuhn said. The revenue was intended to fund normal day-to-day operations and maintenance.
The commission is responsible for maintaining more than 1,750 facilities and their water and sewer lines, electric service, fishing piers, boat ramps, dams, campgrounds, showerhouses and latrines across Nebraska. The state's 79 parks and trails attracted nearly 9 million visits last year.
Routine maintenance is performed, but all facilities eventually require major repair or replacement, Kuhn said.
The commission's deferred maintenance list includes swimming pools at Ponca and Platte River State Parks, an aging primary power grid at Mahoney State Park and roofs at Fort Robinson State Park's playhouse and three Officer's Quarters.
Updated regulatory standards also come with a price tag. The commission operates about 30 fish-cleaning stations at popular lakes. Current waste-disposal methods do not comply with new standards. Stations that originally cost $15,000 now require $150,000, to replace, officials said.
A similar scenario is true for the commission's more than 40 recreational vehicle dump stations across the state.
The 36 new pit toilets to be built by reassigned Game and Parks crews would take a $600,000 job off the deferred maintenance list, Kuhn said.
Mandates to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act are expected to add $13 million to the commission's maintenance list, Kuhn said.
Nebraska's eight state parks cover more than 31,000 acres of land. The 59 state recreational areas include more than 34,000 acres of land and 67,300 acres of water.
“That's a lot to take care of,'' Douglas said. “We've been doing an exceptional job of that.”
However, he said, the park system can't be kept at the level that Nebraskans expect unless changes are made.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln introduced a bill in the Legislature to help resolve the situation this year. Legislative Bill 362 proposed to replace the park entry permit with a $7 charge on Nebraskans' motor vehicle registration fee.
The bill's fate is uncertain in the 2014 legislative session. If passed as proposed, it would repeal the park permit requirement for Nebraska residents and generate enough annual revenue to provide sustainable funding to properly address deferred maintenance and other issues, Douglas said.
During the past five years, Game and Parks has transferred eight park areas out of the state system, privatized and consolidated several park operations and eliminated 43 permanent park positions, nearly 20 percent of the division's job force.
Douglas said the commission will continue to streamline the park system, create efficiencies and make the most effective use of its employees.
Despite the closures, Douglas said, the agency will continue to develop new sites and improve others that promise to generate revenue. Upgrading electrical service to camping pads or adding cabins at certain sites are examples of features that will increase park usage, he said.
Douglas said he appreciates that the closures will not go over well in communities near the sites. But he said the state's historical parks cost about $2.5 million to maintain while only generating $200,000 in revenue annually.