Celebrating 40 Years of the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation

February 5, 2024 NEBRASKAland Magazine

If you love Nebraska’s natural and recreational resources, the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation is a perfect way to show your appreciation



Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine

By Jeff Kurrus

Core values. The Nebraska Game and Parks has many. Access. Opportunity. Stewardship. Providing opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, camping and outdoor education and recreation. They have an economic value of $3.8 billion in our state. These activities are the backbone of introducing Nebraskans, and visitors alike, to the outdoors and keeping them outdoors, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation is a central figure in each of these.

Established in 1983, the vision for the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation was to take the work by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to the next level, enhancing a myriad of projects when limited state funds could not.

But it’s not just completing the projects that’s important. It’s the value of these projects to those whom we serve — the public — when the value of the Foundation’s contributions are seen in moments and memories.

Here are some of their stories.

With Foundation assistance, Ponca State Park’s aquatic center replaced a pool originally opened in 1956. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

We’re Staying Here Forever

Tucker Urbanovsky, of Arnold, loves to fish. Always has. His parents think he always will. Admittedly, that might be hard to say, as Tucker is only 4 years old, but his relationship with the outdoors only continues to grow, so his parents seem to think this is a safe assumption.

“No,” he told his parents on a recent fishing and camping trip. “I’m not leaving. We’re staying here forever.”

“He asks to go fishing all the time,” said his mom, Tori.

One of Tucker’s first introductions to the outdoors was the Fort Kearny Outdoor Expo when he was 6 months old. In the Urbanovsky family archive, there is a photo with him holding a fishing pole.

At this young age, he has already picked out his favorite quarry, channel catfish, and has no problem touching the fish, de-hooking the fish and eating a fish nugget or two his dad, Brent, fries after their good fortune.

When he’s not fishing, he’s watching coyote hunting videos with his dad and hoping to go on his first coyote hunt, like his 8-year-old sister, Daneo, and 7-year-old brother, Will, have done.

The Urbanovsky family from Arnold puts their kids’ names in for a chance to win a lifetime hunt/fish permit every year. This year, their 4-year-old son, Tucker, won the permit. Photo by Julie Geiser, Nebraskaland Magazine.

So with these three nature kids — as well as 2-year-old Sunny and 7-month-old Eva, Tori took it upon herself to apply for a half-price youth lifetime permit anytime she could.

“We get emails [from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission] about the drawings, and I enter them all,” she said. Recently, her persistence worked out when Tucker received a half-price youth lifetime permit.

This is where the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation comes in. The Foundation established the half-price Youth Lifetime Permit program in 2006 by creating an endowment to introduce and even re-engage kids to the outdoors. Drawings for Nebraska youth 15 and younger are held throughout the state at partner events, public events and online, as seen with the Urbanovsky family. Winners of these drawings can purchase a lifetime hunting and fishing permit for half price, with the Foundation funding the other half.

Since the program began, the Foundation has provided funds for more than 9,000 lifetime permits like Tucker’s, and Tori certainly won’t stop filling out entry forms for the rest of the kids in their family anytime soon — just as the Foundation wants it.

Five Quilters and a Wayward Scrapbooker

If you walk into the Bison mini-lodge at Ponca State Park when Sarah Johnson, of Geneva, and her quilting friends and family are visiting, it’s hard not to notice the unique furniture arrangement. Couches, chairs and tables are pushed against the wall replaced by a line of working tables — each topped with sewing machines and cutting mats.

Since 2006, Johnson’s group — coming from Syracuse and Geneva, Nebraska, to Rapid City, South Dakota, and all parts in between — has taken up temporary residence at one of the cabins at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park or, most recently, one of the mini-lodges at Ponca State Park.

“The same six of us go every year,” said Johnson. “This year, I was sitting at my computer at 12 a.m. on the first day the lodge was available at Ponca so I could get our reservation. We work on our projects, talk and eat. Five of us are quilters and we have one scrapbooker who we’re slowly converting into a quilter.”

The Bison mini-lodge at Ponca fills every fall with a group of quilting friends from across the region. Because of the Foundation, friends and family are able to get together and do what they love to do. Photo courtesy of Sarah Johnson.

The Foundation’s fingerprint on the construction of the mini-lodges at Ponca, as well as the Governor’s Row mini-lodges at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, has been immense, raising millions of dollars to build them. But their work at either park isn’t limited to these projects.

At Ponca, funds from the Foundation also established the aquatic center, replacing a relic originally opened in 1956. From locals wanting an afternoon dip at the pool to out-of-towners marking Ponca as a vacation destination, the aquatic center is just one more reason to visit this northeastern Nebraska park jewel.

At Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, the Foundation’s reach is just as profound. From the purchase of the property in 1985 to the recently completed Crete Carrier Riverview Lodge, as well as the upcoming raging river water slide addition to the aquatic center, the Foundation remains the center point for completing any number of projects.

The Crete Carrier Riverview Lodge and Mahoney State Park hosts large group outings — from weddings to conferences and everything in between — and Foundation support was integral in its construction. Photo by Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland Magazine.

But the Foundation’s work stretches beyond the projects themselves, as seen from Johnson and her group of quilters regardless of where they travel. This is how traditions start. And local businesses benefit because of these traditions. For, as Sarah Johnson and her group know all too well, if you’re going to visit Ponca State Park, you must visit the soda fountain at nearby Keller Drug as well. Yet not before hiking or driving throughout the winding roads at Ponca — looking for deer or visiting one of the park’s scenic overlooks of the Missouri River valley, their time at Ponca becoming their lodge away from home.

Only Once Before

Matthew Marx has lived in Omaha for nearly his entire life. He’s married and has two grade-school-aged sons, Alex and William, whose day-to-day calendar — especially in the summer — is jam-packed with anything associated with nature.

From forest hikes to playing at Platte River State Park’s spray park, the Marxes are an outdoor family. That said, it would make perfect sense for him to have visited Aksarben Aquarium, adjacent to Schramm Park SRA, at some point during his life — but that just wasn’t the case.
“I went one time as a kid,” he said.

That all changed with the aquarium’s renovation to the Schramm Education Center, which opened in 2019. “Once the new one was built, we were there all the time.” He and his boys have spent hours at the new aquarium, buying season passes so they could do arts and crafts, ride the virtual reality bikes, and participate in their favorite family outdoor activity: pet the aquarium’s shovelnose sturgeon.

Visiting the touch tank is a high priority for many visitors at the Schramm Education Center. Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine.

“What’s also nice about the new aquarium is that it’s all Nebraska species. The boys can learn about the stuff that lives here, not in some faraway saltwater sea.”

Before the renovations, Schramm primarily welcomed visitors on a seasonal basis. Now, thanks to being part of the Venture Parks project in association with the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, that number of visitors has tripled, including increased year-round visitation.

And for good reason. Matt is not the only person who grew up in eastern Nebraska and spent very little, if any time, at the old aquarium. But he’s also not the only person who has found a new place to learn about nature in his own backyard — at Schramm Education Center.

The Best Kind of Friend

“Friends disappoint you,” said Loretta Asche, drawing laughter from herself. “But vacation friends do not. At least … mine don’t.”

Asche’s vacation friends have been with her for nearly 30 years at Fort Robinson State Park at their group’s annual trail ride each September. Originally conducted by the Painthorse Association, this ride is now organized by Asche and gets a group of longtime “vacation” friends together who have one thing in common — horses.

Since its completion in 2015, Fort Robinson State Park’s 1891 Officers Quarters has become
a destination for large groups looking for an authentic Western lodging experience. Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine.

“These people are better than friends,” she said fondly. They come from all over the country — from Wisconsin to Maryland, and for many years they would stay all over northwestern Nebraska.

But for the past five years, since its completion in 2015, they’ve taken up temporary residence at Fort Robinson State Park’s 1891 Officers Quarters.
With help from the Foundation, these Quarters are a direct replica of the original building, constructed in 1891, making them perfect for large groups of people like Asche’s. “We have enough beds for 18 people,” she said. “Four bedrooms. Four bathrooms. And a large area for meetings and meals. It’s so nice because we have so much space. We visit each year for five days,” Asche said. “But it feels like it’s over in a day. We’ve become such good friends.”

The 1891 Officers Quarters at Fort Robinson gives equestrians like Mike and Jill Angelo a place to stay near some of the best horseback riding in the state. Photo courtesy of Loretta Asche.

Places to Go

“Access is No. 1,” said Andre Miller of Omaha, who spends any moment of free time near the water with a clutch of fishing rods and reels in his hand and a tacklebox slung over his shoulder.

He’s always looking for a new place and, once there, where he should start fishing. “Folks have their spots,” he said. “Moms and daughters. Dads and sons. Folks just want to be outside.”

Being outside, and having access, is growing even easier throughout Nebraska with the construction of fishing piers, and the Foundation remains important at providing these access points. The Foundation has provided funding for piers at Mahoney State Park and Johnson Lake SRA, and Two Rivers SRA west of Omaha will have a new fishing pier in 2024 as a memorial donation for a beloved family member who recently passed away.

“Families go to those docks,” Miller said. “They’re such easy access for parents.” Meanwhile, anglers like Miller have more of the shoreline to fish once these are installed.

But it’s not just access at a public lake that interests folks like Miller, it’s having somewhere entirely new to fish, hunt, hike, bike, or just simply, be. Throughout the Foundation’s 40 years, land acquisition to create public access also has remained a high priority. Either by maintaining relationships with landowners who believe in the mission of Game and Parks and the Foundation and donate land or, through their estate planning, set aside and gift property to the Foundation for eventual public access, or for purchasing properties outright with these donated funds.

Accessible fishing piers create more opportunities to enjoy Nebraska’s tremendous fishing opportunities. Andre Miller, of Omaha, fishes from one at Louisville SRA. Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine.

In recent years, 57 acres were purchased next to Kearny SRA. In Dawes County, 680 acres were purchased, while in Custer County, a 720-acre Life Estate tract will be received as a donation to the Foundation in the future. In the past 10 years, a Foundation endowment has helped with a total of seven acquisitions. Memorial donations, estates and wills are ways that people and families have given back to Nebraska, creating a legacy that future generations can appreciate and enjoy.

But to be honest, Miller and a lot of outdoor enthusiasts like him don’t always know how these new access points and properties appear, but they are surely happy when they do. And when told that Two Rivers SRA will soon have a new pier to either fish from or watch others fish from, Miller responded in a way that explains all of the work the Foundation does.


Whether a person is quilting or kayaking, horseback riding or hunting, the Foundation is helping to make these moments happen. The gracious donors want people to enjoy the outdoors, and have a variety of ways to do that. They want the outdoors to be a huge part of their futures, and definitely want them to retain their pasts.

Jim Abel has served as chairman for the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation for nearly 20 years.

“Nebraska’s quality of life is greatly improved by providing public places and access to hunt, fish and experience our beautiful, family-friendly parks and recreation areas statewide,” said Foundation Chairman Jim Abel. “This is one of the reasons why the Foundation supports the agency’s mission and facilitates projects that benefit all Nebraskans, now and for future generations to come.”

With this mindset, it’s no surprise that the Foundation, with its successful and long-lasting projects, would have one final question on their mind.
What’s next? 

The Wildcat Hills State Nature Center offers educational opportunities, including birdwatching and banding workshops and the Outdoor Discovery Program, for visitors of all ages. Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine.

Even More Impacts

The Foundation’s role in providing additional opportunities to Nebraska’s outdoor enthusiasts goes even further than updated facilities and new properties to access.

With each hunting or fishing permit sold, Nebraska receives excise tax money through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts, respectively. This includes lifetime hunting and fishing permits.

In addition, when hunting and fishing equipment is sold, excise tax money is received. So when a hunter becomes even more excited to venture into the field, because of a new place to go, and visits Cabela’s, Scheels or another local outdoor retailer, even more opportunities can be funded for current and future hunters and anglers.

To donate yourself, keep these in mind:

• Contributions are tax deductible.
• Gifts can include small or large financial contributions, natural areas, historic places, or donations for park facilities.
• Contributions can be designated to a particular project or area of the state.

For more information on the Foundation and how to give, visit nebraskagameandparksfoundation.org.

Anglers at Johnson Lake State Recreation Area access newly constructed fishing piers. Photo by Julie Geiser, Nebraskaland Magazine.

Funding Opportunity

When it is determined that funding is needed for a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission project, representatives from Game and Parks approach the Foundation. The Foundation then makes a decision if and how much to contribute.

Take, for example, the recent and ongoing multi-faceted Venture Parks project. The Game and Parks approached the Foundation with a vision and need to reinvest and update outdoor recreation and education opportunities in four existing parks — Mahoney, Platte River, Louisville and Schramm — along the Platte River between Omaha and Lincoln.

The Foundation decided to support this effort, which identified more than 60 features in its master plan, designed to encourage people to venture outdoors, creating lifelong memories and establish the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. The project was going to require support from the Nebraska Legislature and governor.

As Game and Parks Assistant Director Roger Kuhn tells it, the trip to the Capitol was memorable. “John Gottschalk, a director serving on the Foundation, walks into the state capitol, where senators on the appropriations committee have been listening to people ask for money all day, for multiple days.

“After sitting for several hours waiting his turn, John testifies to the appropriations committee hearing and says, ‘I’m here representing the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation and I’m here to give you money.’”

The nearly completed Treehouse Classroom at Schramm Park State Recreation Area. Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine.

The Foundation’s plan was to raise $28 million of the estimated $35 million project cost, asking the Nebraska Legislature and Game and Parks to fund the rest.

Twenty-four months later, with the help of many generous donors, ground was broken for the first Venture Parks projects. In 2024, the last Venture Parks project will be completed.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, and its generous supporters, does so much more than provide the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission financial support. It helps the agency meet its mission as stewards of the public’s natural resources, parklands and recreational opportunities. “The Foundation and its generous donors make Nebraska’s outdoors better, today and for future generations,” said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director Tim McCoy. “This supports our goals of engaging Nebraskans and our visitors of all ages in nature and outdoor recreation.”

The post Celebrating 40 Years of the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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