LINCOLN — Western Nebraska's frontier-era Fort Robinson State Park is saddling up for the 21st century.
State Game and Parks commissioners approved and adopted a 94-page management plan Friday to chart a new path for the park during the next decade.
The document includes proposed tourism campaigns to target equestrians, baby boomers, hunters and geology and Western enthusiasts. It casts a few lines to improve trout fishing in the park's cold-water streams. It points the way to enhancing self-guided wildlife and scenic viewing tours. It takes aim at promoting big-game trophy hunting.
And it brews up a study of selling beer and wine by the glass in the park restaurant.
The plan is a guide for Game and Parks officials to meet known and unknown challenges to the attraction, said Tim McCoy, the commission's deputy director.
“Fort Robinson is a gem,” McCoy said. “This plan is a road map.''
The Fort Robinson document is the first of a series of new management plans scheduled for each of the state's eight state parks.
“This is just a start of a timeline for the modernization of the parks,'' said Commissioner Kent Forney of Lincoln who applauded agency staffers for developing a strategy. The plan has been in the works since 2011.
Fort Robinson is one of the largest, most historic and popular of Nebraska's eight state parks. Tucked into the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska, the former Army outpost attracts 300,000 to 370,000 visitors each year.
“Fort Robinson is the heartbeat of our tourism,'' said Stacy Swinney of Chadron, a Dawes County commissioner who attended the Game and Parks meeting.
McCoy said the fort is in the best shape of its life; except, of course, when it was new.
The diversity of activities and facilities at the park almost guarantees it will continue to be a major tourist attraction in Nebraska, the plan says.
Still, without continued maintenance and upkeep of the historical structures, the fort will rapidly deteriorate, the plan says. It remains to be seen whether future developments, including modern lodging facilities, will allow the park to generate increased income and potentially break even or produce revenue beyond annual operation and maintenance expenses.
All of the fort buildings are at least 100 years old. Sewer and water systems have been improved. Building exteriors have been renovated. Yet the annual operation and maintenance costs exceed the annual income produced during the Memorial Day to Labor Day tourist season.
Fort Robinson covers more than 35 square miles. Adjoining state and federal property pushes the publicly accessible complex of rugged hills and bluffs, ponderosa pine forests and grasslands to 40 square miles.
The park offers a variety of activities and lodging choices that make it popular for family reunions, said Roger Kuhn, parks division administrator. Fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, horseback trail rides, canoeing, picnicking, swimming and wildlife viewing are popular pursuits. Lodging ranges from primitive camping to rooms in a lodge, cabins and adobe quarters retrofitted with modern conveniences.
The fort was established in 1874 as a post to protect the Red Cloud Indian Agency. After World War I, it developed into the world's largest training and breeding center for Army horses and mules. During WW II, it held German prisoners of war and was used to train war dogs. A state park was established in 1956. The Nebraska State Historical Society operates a museum in the 1905 post headquarters.
The fort has eight full-time employees and hires about 115 temporary workers during the peak season. A shrinking rural population around the fort makes it difficult to fill vacancies.
McCoy said the issue of serving alcohol in the park restaurant will be studied. Alcohol consumption is allowed in the park, but it isn't served in the restaurant.
In the past, the idea of allowing alcohol in the restaurant has been opposed by some citizens of Crawford, the nearest community, because having a drink with dinner is one of the few reasons park visitors travel to town.
“The fort serving alcohol could affect the type of partnership that Crawford has with the park,'' the report says.
Privatizing the restaurant is problematic, according to the plan.
The restaurant makes a profit or nearly breaks even most years. The food service from 2008 to 2011 operated about $40,000 in the black. It may be difficult to find a business interested in running the restaurant because the fort's visitation is limited to roughly 100 calendar days, and it is in a remote location with a limited population, the report says. An attempt to find a private food service in 2010 to operate the restaurant came up empty.
Part of the solution to ensuring the park's future includes boosting visitation, officials said.
During the next year, Game and Parks officials will notch up their work with the Nebraska Tourism Commission to market the park in conjunction with other regional attractions.
They hope to entice packaged tours to stop at the park.