Cramped Quarters + Colorado Cannabis = McConaughy Concerns

Campers had ample beach space on July 4, 2014. (Photo courtesy Central Public Power)
Families enjoy the lake prior to the holiday weekend. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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July 3, 2015 - 6:45am

Space for camping on the beaches of Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy will be at a premium over the July 4th weekend, raising concerns about crowding and sharing close quarters with marijuana smokers defying the law.

The prevalence of pot has become an increasing issue for law enforcement who patrol the state’s largest recreation area. They report a steady increase in complaints about its use and the number of citations issued. On busy weekends up to 70 percent of Lake McConaughy visitors travel from Colorado according the Game and Parks Commission.

Fourth of July weekend historically attracts the highest number of visitors to Lake McConaughy. (Chart: Bill Kelly, NET News)

Asked what the biggest problem will be during the upcoming holiday weekend, Keith County Sheriff Jeffrey Stevens didn’t hesitate.

“I would say marijuana,” Stevens said.

He has nothing against visitors from Colorado. “We welcome them!” he is quick to add. The sheriff simply offers advice to the cross-border tourists.

 “(You) have the right to do it in Colorado but just please understand: don’t bring it here. Respect our laws and enjoy yourself while you are here,” Stevens said.

Sheriff Stevens said depending on weather during the long weekend, the compression of beachfront camping spots could put visitors in closer proximity giving rise to all the problems brought on by human beings in close quarters, especially if marijuana is as prevalent as it was last year.

Record spring rains throughout the Platte River basin filled the lake to over 90 percent of capacity. Campers used to finding fingers of white sand stretching hundreds of yards will find many of their favorite spots to lounge under several feet of water.

“Right now what we are looking at is we see the tops of trees, Cottonwood trees that are sticking out of the water,” observed Dave from Kearney, a 40-year-plus veteran lakeshore camper. He was standing outside his mobile camper on a narrow stretch of beach still left on the lake’s north side.

In 2014 beach space was plentiful and popular. Game and Park counted 181,147 visitors over the long July 4th weekend, 51,000 more than the previous year.

Apparently a significant number of visitors used their campsites to sample marijuana made legal a few hundred miles away in Colorado last year.

One Ogallala resident who camps with his family used a public hearing of the Nebraska Legislature’s judiciary committee to plea for back up.

“We need additional help at Lake McConaughy on holiday weekends,” Lonnie Folchert said.

A family camps on the lake's north shore on a June evening, before the holiday weekend crowds. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Folchert, a current state probation official and former uniformed law officer, enjoys camping with his family at the lake but found the experience last summer to be difficult.  

“The marijuana was very open,” Folchert testified. “It was just out in the open and I called (law enforcement) twice about it and they were just too busy with other stuff to deal with the infraction of marijuana at Lake McConaughy.”

Sheriff Stevens said “we have good coverage” for the annual tourist invasion.

“It takes a combined effort to get through one of these big holiday weekends,” Stevens said.

His department has three deputies assigned to patrol during the day and eight others working the night shift. Backing them up will be 18 Game and Parks uniformed officers on lake duty that weekend.

“Game and Parks has been wonderful bringing in extra bodies,” Sheriff Stevens said. "The State Patrol gives us what they can but they have a big area to cover also throughout the whole state.”

The Game and Parks Commission declined interview requests for this story.

Keith County Attorney Randy Fair prosecutes law violations at the lake and processes citations issued. The numbers of marijuana-related cases, from the lake, traffic stops on I-80, and local users have increased dramatically.

Last year the county prosecuted 190 marijuana cases, nearly four times the number of charges filed two years earlier. Already the county attorney has 125 cases on the books before the year is half over, signaling the likelihood of a record year for pot arrests.

The impact of the July 4th weekend won’t fully hit the county attorney's office until after the holiday.

“Come Monday, Tuesday when everyone comes in, we all understand that after every busy summer weekend we have a lot of work to do,” Fair said.

Courthouse staff deals with the paperwork and scheduling multiple court hearings that arise from a weekend of arrests. In order to minimize some of the workload in Keith County, the county judge routinely issues a letter giving arresting officers the authority to give offenders at the state park an opportunity to avoid court by paying a fine on the spot.

After hearing about the prevalence of use among campers last summer, Fair says he’s taken aback by how “there certainly is a different attitude toward allowing it to be in the open and not being concerned about law enforcement.”

“People don’t hide it,” Fair said. “We’ve had law enforcement come up on tables where they have their marijuana out (with) the different smoking devices they may use.”

This is not the first time concerns have been raised about Lake McConaughy risking its reputation as being family friendly.

Campers line up in preparation to be pulled into place on the narrow sand beach. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Brian Frahm, a long time McConaughy camper, moved from Kansas to build his dream home on a breezy bluff on the south side of the lake.  He knows what it was like before the state banned liquor at this and one other park.

“Changed things quite a bit,” Frahm, said. “Young people’s out-of-control parties got curbed tremendously.”

No one is criticizing the out-of-state visitors as a whole. Frahm was one himself.

“Colorado people really populate this lake, that’s for sure,” he said, looking out at the water from his deck on a summer evening. “It’s a large lake. For them it’s uncrowded. To people around here it (seems like it) gets crowded but the lake is so big it never gets crowded on the water. It’s only the beach that gets crowded.”

Dave from Kearney agrees.

“It’s the sand beaches,” he said, explaining the lakes popularity. “This being in the Sandhills, it’s not mud. You’ve got this beautiful white sand. And the other thing is the water comes out of the North Platte River out of the Rocky Mountains. It’s clean, fresh. It’s beautiful.”

But Dave isn’t as enamored by the prevalent party scene that crops up over the big weekends.

“Even for me, an old time guy from the 60s. It can get crazy. You know, when I was thirty-something, I’d be in the middle of that kind of thing having fun,” he said.

And for this holiday weekend?

“I’m leaving on July second,” Dave said with a laugh.

The overcrowding caused by high water might not be as bad if word gets around that beach space is at a premium. Campers may figure it’s not worth the trip.  The other huge variable is the weather. In May steady rains cut the number of visitors over Memorial Day to 15,000, or about a third of the campers who arrived in 2014.



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