Natural Resources

State grant would help rebuild camp destroyed by wildfire

The state would help rebuild and expand a 4-H camp in north-central Nebraska under a bill heard Feb. 15 by the Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Mike Jacobson
Sen. Mike Jacobson

LB281, introduced by North Platte Sen. Mike Jacobson, would require the state Department of Economic Development to provide grants to certain qualifying nonprofit organizations for the purpose of building or renovating youth outdoor education camp facilities.

Each grant would require a minimum of a 25 percent match in private or other money from the applicant, and no applicant could receive one or more grants totaling more than $30 million.

The bill would require the department to give preference to any applicant that intends to rebuild a youth outdoor education camp facility that was damaged due to a natural or manmade disaster.

Jacobson said the proposal is intended to help rebuild and expand the Nebraska State 4-H Camp destroyed last fall by the Bovee Fire, which burned approximately 19,000 acres of forest and grassland in and around the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey. Insurance payments will not cover the total cost to rebuild the 64-year-old camp, he said, which also hosted local events such as wedding receptions, high school dances and conferences.

Jacobson brought an amendment to the hearing that he said would require the department also to give preference to applicants intending to build certain facilities that would make the site a “gateway destination” to draw more visitors to the Sandhills and the national forest, two of Nebraska’s “greatest treasures.”

“This makes it clear that our goal with LB281 is to not just replace what was there but to build 21st century facilities and infrastructure to host youth development camps and create new economic opportunities for residents of the Sandhills,” Jacobson said.

The bill states legislative intent to appropriate $50 million from the state’s general fund to the department for the grant program.

Jeff Yost testified in support of LB281 on behalf of the Nebraska Community Foundation, saying the new, expanded camp would be managed by an independent, locally governed nonprofit. He said an economic impact study commissioned by the foundation last fall found that the proposed $37 million project would generate an estimated $4 million in economic activity each year.

In addition to providing educational programs for campers, Yost said, the project would include lodging, a conference and event center, a restaurant and activities including hiking, camping, horseback riding, canoeing and stargazing.

“This investment will create new jobs as well as diversify the existing job pool,” Yost said. “It will catalyze small businesses focused on ecotourism to grow and expand.”

Cay Ewoldt, who runs a grocery store and an outfitting business in Thedford, also testified in support. He said the camp drove his passion for nature and conservation as a youth and taught leadership and life skills to tens of thousands of Nebraskans.

Rebuilding the camp could provide new jobs to area residents and encourage others like him to return, Ewoldt said.

Also in support was Brenda Masek, who said rebuilding the camp is “time critical.” Many who live in the Halsey area have fond memories of the camp, she said, but residents and local businesses also relied on the tourism it generated and seasonal jobs it offered.

“This is not about sentiment,” Masek said. “This is about need.”

No one testified in opposition to LB281 and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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