It may be winter, but the great outdoors hasn’t shut down after a record-setting year in South Dakota.
Instead of the usual January slowdown, Park Manager Kristina Laska has seen a surge of visitors enjoying winter fun at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area near Yankton.
Spurred by COVID and months of mild weather, area lakes and parks are seeing unprecedented tourism numbers. The trend started last March and has continued ever since, with no sign of slowing down.
And that’s a high bar to clear at the Lewis and Clark Rec Area, which attracts more than one million visitors annually.
“Actually, it’s been a record breaking year for us,” Laska said. “I’ve been here a little more than three months, so I didn’t get to see the summer (traffic). But our numbers were record-breaking all year long, and that continued into the months of November and December.”
Tourism and wildlife officials encourage exploration of the “shoulder season” when visitor numbers normally drop off. But they have been surprised how the numbers have remained strong into early 2021.
Despite waiving entry fees and not collecting visitor numbers for almost two months at the start of the pandemic, South Dakota state park visitation in 2020 was up roughly 31% compared to 2019, according to a South Dakota News Watch story.
The overall economic value of outdoor recreation has surpassed $1.9 billion annually, according to the News Watch story.
Also, Nebraska showed strong numbers for outdoor recreation, continuing into the winter.
Laska pointed to activities attracting those seeking the great outdoors. In order to meet winter visitor needs, the rec area offers snowshoe rental along with plowed hiking and biking trails.
“We’ve never had interest like we have through these winter months,” she said. “People are utilizing the parks, and we’re seeing foot traffic during the weekends.”
In addition, the winter offers spectacular scenery, Laska said.
“Most people really don’t know how extensive our trail system will go,” she said. “There’s just an amazing view of the lake and the wooded areas. It’s really neat to hike with all the possible (opportunities).”
Lewis and Clark Rec Area doesn’t offer snowmobile trails, but it does offer ice fishing at Lake Yankton, Laska said. Because of the prolonged above-average temperatures (even in the 40s and 50s), anglers must remain aware of thin ice and test for thickness, she added.
January has also provided a treat for bird watchers. Bald eagles remain a popular attraction in the Lewis and Clark Lake area, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers overlook at Gavins Point Dam.
The South Dakota Ornithologists Union, which runs the state’s premiere bird watching webpage and social media account, saw its Facebook page activity increase several hundred percent during the pandemic, according to South Dakota News Watch.
The heightened activity hasn’t been limited to Lewis and Clark Lake. A number of sites across southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska are reporting strong interest in their activities, ranging from ice fishing and hunting to camping.
Ranger Dugan Smith has seen signs of increased visitation along the Missouri National Recreation River (MNRR), running from Pickstown to Ponca, Nebraska.
“COVID has made some of the numbers rise. We’re getting more inquiries about camping than we’ve ever had,” he said. “People want to get away and get outdoors, and they want to feel safe. We like to see visitors getting used to time outdoors even during winter.”
During the spring and summer, visitors discovered areas such as Bow Creek, Myron Grove and the Clay County parks with their boat ramps and other amenities, Smith said. The NPS has made upgrades for those wanting to use areas such as Goat Island and Green Island, he added.
Even those not looking for adventure are still enjoying the mild winter, Smith said.
“It has stayed pretty steady. People have found the roads are good enough that they can get someplace,” the ranger said. “We’re open, and the state parks are open. People can bring their lunch and enjoy viewing the river.”
Northeast Nebraska has enjoyed a strong winter for outdoor activities, according to Sgt. Jeff Jones. Based out of Hartington, he serves as a conservation officer with the Law Enforcement Division of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC).
This winter, he has seen an increase in bird watching and use of the trails in the Nebraska Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area.
“I would also say there has been more fishing being done off the fishing wall and in the tailwaters (below Gavins Point Dam). That may be carryover from the spring when our fishing permit sales were up,” Jones said.
“Now, individuals have a permit and want to fish before (their permits) expire. Also, with the (Gavins Point Dam) gates being closed and good success, there has been increased fishing activity.”
Jones has received comments from people trying ice fishing for the first time, while others are trying cross-country skiing.
“One more activity I have seen carry over to the winter, and maybe because it is mild (weather), is the use of the Frisbee golf courses,” he said.
The interest in safe outdoor activities came at the same time that many other activities were cancelled, according to Dan Altman. He serves as district conservation officer supervisor for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in the southeast region of the state.
A couple of factors played into a big increase in fishing, Altman said.
“We got some really nice weather early,” he said. “On top of that, with the (COVID) issues we’re facing, people didn’t have the normal things to do. Events were cancelled, but the outdoors remained open. People didn’t have to be around others or even spend a lot of money.”
The popularity of ice fishing reflects an overall major surge in popularity across the state, according to Paul Lepisto. Based in Pierre, he serves as regional conservation coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America.
“I think we’re seeing a huge spike in angling licenses across the state,” he said. “Some of them already had their fishing license, but I think it’s because a lot of people couldn’t go anywhere or do anything (during the pandemic). They wanted to do something where they could stay safe and remain active. It gets them in motion and it gets them outside.”
For the first time in several years, hunting and fishing license sales to state residents increased, according to South Dakota News Watch.
Resident hunting and fishing license sales rose 6.7% with about one-fourth of 2020 licenses sold to hunters and anglers who had not bought a license since at least 2017. New and returning hunters and anglers were a critical part of a $2.6 million increase in license sales revenue for the GFP.
South Dakotans bought more than 170,000 fishing licenses during 2020, compared to the three-year average of 137,012 annually.
What does this all mean for the future?
Across the board, wildlife and tourism officials believe the past year has resulted in a new awakening now seen this winter. In turn, the uptick in outdoor pursuits could be here to stay.
Laska believes the pandemic, combined with the prolonged nice weather, provided the fuel for many people to discover the great outdoors.
“People realized what there is out there that they can do. With the nice weather, we really had people wth the urge to get out,” she said. “They had great opportunities to get out and go hiking, for a bike ride and to utilize the trails. Everybody could just get outdoors much later in the season.”
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