Nebraska camping fees likely to rise as sites cater to luxury RVs

Nebraska camping fees likely to rise as sites cater to luxury RVs
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is seeking to increase camping fees to help the agency meet demand for upgraded campgrounds pushed by recent records sales of RVs nationally. (LARRY AND JAN NOVICKI)

LINCOLN — Campers will likely pay more to hang a hammock, pitch a tent or electrify their condos-on-wheels at state parks in Nebraska next year.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will vote on a gamut of fee increases for camping and indoor lodging at its meeting Friday in Kearney. The estimated $2 million generated by the higher fees will help the agency meet demand for upgraded campgrounds pushed by recent record sales of RVs nationally, said Jim Swenson, administrator for the parks division.

“The most common visitor comment we receive in our parks is, ‘The parks need more campsites, including more full-service connections,’ ” Swenson said, referring to sites that offer water, sewer and higher-amperage connections to power campers equipped with flat-screens, double air conditioners and full-sized refrigerators.

So parks officials have recommended that the commission raise the cost of a primitive Tier 1 tent site from $8 to $10, while charging $35 for full-service Tier 5 sites. Swenson also wants the ability to add a $5 or $10 surcharge to designated “prime” sites, a relatively small number of spots with the prettiest views and highest demand from campers, he said.

The director of a statewide RV club cautioned that Game and Parks could price itself out of the market. Norm Richardson, leader of a group called Nebraska Good Sam, said state parks compete with private campgrounds, and campers definitely compare prices.

“I hope they don’t get carried away with the fees,” said Richardson, a retired small-business owner from Chadron.

Swenson said he does not expect the fee increases to trigger a decline in annual parks visitation, which is currently estimated at 12 million. User fees cover about 77 cents out of every dollar in the state parks’ annual budget of $28 million, he added.

The surge in RV sales over the past few years has been fueled by retiring baby boomers who can afford luxury campers sporting six-figure price tags. But the RV Industry Association also says it has seen growing demand from millennials who are snapping up entry-level units in the $10,000 range.

Apparently neither the seniors nor the young adults really want to disconnect their smartphones and tablet computers while getting away from it all, as there is demand for campground Wi-Fi as well. RV campgrounds equipped years ago with 20-amp electrical outlets are inadequate to fully power modern campers.

Also in response to public feedback, the agency wants to make pricing as consistent as possible across the state. Currently, some fees vary from park to park, Swenson said.

It’s part of the commission’s effort to pay for upgrades while keeping pace with rising operational costs and a deferred maintenance backlog of $76 million, Swenson said. Most park fees were last increased in 2014 and 2015, he added.

The proposal also recommends raising fees on cabins, lodges and meeting rooms at popular state parks such as Fort Robinson, Niobrara, Ponca, Eugene T. Mahoney and Platte River. Camping at Smith Falls along the Niobrara River would increase from $5 to $8 per person, and $2 increases would be added to campsites at Lake McConaughy to help pay for a long-term, $20 million upgrade at the popular destination.

Finally, campers who bring horses into the parks by trailer would pay a $5 surcharge, while the cost of horseback trail rides at Fort Robinson would increase as well.

The nine-member Game and Parks Commission will take up the proposal when it meets at 8 a.m. Friday at the Holiday Inn Express conference room, 508 S. Second Ave. in Kearney.

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