Southwest Nebraska mobile home owners fighting ‘uphill battle’ to stay put

June 14, 2023, 4:46 p.m. ·

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Feds had sought to remove lakeside cabins from Swanson and Red Willow Reservoirs in southwest Nebraska. (Courtesy of Jason Frederick/Hitchcock County News)

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Growing up with farm parents meant there weren’t many days off. But on those special days, Jena Brunswig and her parents would load up the car and drive from their house in Tribune, Kansas to the Swanson Reservoir in southwest Nebraska.

Brunswig’s first memories were learning how to fish with her dad on the lake. She said her dad was a hard worker, and since fishing was “a little bit like work,” that was what he did during his time off.

In 1999, Brunswig bought her own trailer at the lake, and now, her children have created memories of learning to fish with their grandfather.

Brunswig is one of nearly 200 trailer owners between Red Willow and Swanson reservoirs that are fighting to stay where they are. In April, a new lease agreement from the Bureau of Reclamation, who manages the land, was sent, requiring the owners to remove the trailers from the lakes by Nov. 1, 2024.

‘Plan in progress for over 20 years’

The Bureau manages the two lakes, which are on federal property. Every few years, they send updated leases to the concessionaires at the lakes who manage public-use operations, including restaurants, docks and general upkeep.

The Bureau said removing all the privately-owned trailers at the properties is required by policy.

“Private exclusive use of federal property deprives other American citizens of their right to access and enjoy public lands and resources,” said Regional Director Brent Esplin in a news release.

Nebraska-Kansas Area Manager Aaron Thompson said this plan has been in progress since 2000, and that language requiring a gradual reduction of the number of trailers on the properties has been in each lease since 2005.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission managed both reservoirs until early 2022, when they transitioned management of the concession areas to the Bureau.

Prior to that, the Bureau sent them a master lease every 25 years giving them permission to manage the land and work with concessionaires.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Deputy Director Jim Swenson said the commission and Bureau had “differing expectations” for how to run the concessions at the reservoirs.

According to a public proposal, the Bureau has a series of proposed amenities they plan to add to the properties. Plans include ‘glamping’ sites, tiny homes, RV camping sites, splash pads, dog parks and sports courts.

A Bureau spokesperson said there is not estimated cost for the proposed projects yet.

‘We haven’t used any tax money’

Hitchcock County Board Commissioner Paul Nichols said the county gets around $30,000 each year in property taxes from the trailer-owners, and that local businesses rely on sales from the community to stay afloat.

“The thing I think is really neat about it all [is] all the updates have been paid for by the people – either the concessionaires or the people that live there,” Nichols said. “We haven’t used any tax money from you and me to pay for this.”

Community members said they are concerned that the Bureau won’t actually end up starting the multi-million dollar renovations, which have not yet been approved.

Some community members said they feel the Bureau might simply be trying to remove the trailers from the properties.

“A lot of these trailers here are a lot nicer than anything you’ll find in a trailer park in town,” said Former Red Willow Trailer Association President Kent Confer. “And then there are some that are just old.”

The Bureau is leaving all the privately-owned cabins at the properties, according to Confer.

The Bureau declined to comment on whether the cabins would be permitted to stay, but they said each reservoir has its “own unique set of circumstances and needs.”

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Swanson Reservoir community members met at an emotional Hitchcock County Board meeting following news of the updated lease. (Jason Frederick/Hitchcock County News)

‘Delay in feedback from willing partner’

A Hitchcock County Board meeting earlier this month heard emotional frustrations from community members.

“The lady in the back – she’s crying. She raised her kids here, and her grandkids and great-grandkids,” Swanson trailer owner Bill Roddy said. “People are passionate about it.”

Owners said they have been working tirelessly to get any state representatives to help them, and they aren’t giving up hope.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer, Pete Rickets and U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith said they are prepared to help, but cannot do so unless a local entity is willing to take over management of the properties.

The trio said pursuing land transfer legislation often takes years, as it must pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate before being signed into law by the president.

“We are concerned, however, a delay in receiving official feedback from a ready and willing partner has shortened the window of opportunity for getting this done before Swanson and Red Willow residents are impacted by BoR actions,” the statement said.

But community members said they aren’t giving up hope.

“You know, we’ve never had to fight the federal government before,” Roddy said. “We’re realizing we have zero power. And it’s an uphill battle.”

The deadline to sign the lease is June 16. If the lease is signed, the trailers must vacate the area by November 2024. If the lease is not signed, owners of the trailers will be considered trespassing.