LINCOLN — State Sen. Ken Schilz doesn’t want to see one of Nebraska’s top tourist destinations go to pot.
The Ogallala lawmaker’s district includes Lake McConaughy, the western Nebraska reservoir where annual visitation is 1 million and growing.
About 70 percent of those tourists come from Colorado. And while business owners in Ogallala certainly want green to flow into their area, they prefer the kind that flies out of wallets rather than gets rolled into joints.
So Schilz sponsored legislation this year to spend an additional $300,000 on law enforcement at Lake McConaughy.
During a Wednesday public hearing on his bill, however, Schilz backed off on his proposal, Legislative Bill 1076. He said he wanted to give the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission more time to find a solution.
The commission has agreed to bring community leaders from Ogallala in on long-term planning for the lake and its associated campgrounds and recreation areas, Schilz told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
Even though the bill would have directed more funding for the agency, Tim McCoy, deputy director for Game and Parks, testified in a neutral capacity. He said the agency wants to take a more systematic approach to ensure the best use of resources at an attraction that can draw more than 100,000 people on a summer holiday.
“We understand the challenge,” he said. “There’s more people on a busy weekend (at McConaughy) than you’d have at Memorial Stadium.”
Although alcohol is officially banned at McConaughy, many visitors bring liquor to the lake. And after Colorado legalized the commercial sale of marijuana in 2014, authorities have fielded more complaints about the open use of pot, said Keith County Sheriff Jeff Stevens.
“We still see a lot of alcohol out there, unfortunately, and a lot of marijuana brought in from Colorado,” Stevens said.
His department employs seven full-time deputies. During the big summer weekends, he brings on three part-time deputies to help with lake patrols.
During peak periods, Game and Parks brings in about a dozen conservation officers, most of whom are normally assigned to other regions of the state. The Nebraska State Patrol also provides a few troopers to help when it can
Still, it’s often not enough. With a lake that’s almost 22 miles long at full pool, that’s a lot of ground to cover, the sheriff said.
“We don’t want to go out there and harass them,” he said. “We don’t want to ruin their weekend. We just want to make sure everybody is safe.”
Stevens said he would certainly support funding for more law enforcement personnel. But he added that he realizes budgets are tight and Schilz’s bill faced a steep uphill battle.
Schilz said part of the reason he introduced the bill was to prod the conversation. He’s pleased that everyone with a stake in the lake will be talking about law enforcement and other issues confronting one of the state’s best assets.
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