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VIDEO VAULT | Lake Mead was popular with visitors since its creation in 1930's

Americas Playground 1956 Las Vegas News Bureau.jpg

Summer of 2017 has officially arrived. It's "go time" at Lake Mead, which--according to a new book--has been a hit with outdoor enthusiasts since its inception.

"You'll see 300,000 people or so on average in the late 1930's after it's being created," says Great Basin College History Professor Jonathan Foster. " Then we have World War II and it drops a little. But after World War II in the 1950's, you really see visitation beginning to take off. Exponentially, almost."

Foster is the author of "Lake Mead National Recreation Area: A History of America’s First National Playground", and says the level of interest in swimming, boating, and fishing took the federal government by surprise.

"At that point, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was a little overwhelmed with the influx of people, and they really had no history of dealing with outdoor recreation and managing it. They approached the National Park Service and an agreement was worked out between the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service."

The result was the nation's first designated "National Recreation Area"--an idea embraced by the Las Vegas News Bureau in its 1956 promotional film "America's Playground."

"For the average visitor, crafts ranging from rowboats to cruisers may be obtained at marina landings and other points within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area," boomed the narrator's voice as viewers were shown a happy family at play. "The many coves that make up the 500-mile shoreline make ideal spots for fishing. This girl has just hooked a largemouth bass, and by the looks of things he's giving her a real fight."

"By the time we get to the 1990's," says Foster, "I think 9.8 million visitors in 1995. And it still averages 7 to 8 million people coming in. And it's a huge boost to the local economy. These people bring in a lot of money. They create a lot of jobs. And it's a very good thing for Southern Nevada."

"In terms of national parks, Lake Mead is the 3rd most visited in the country," said News 3 reporter Sue Tripathi in 1994. "Nine million people are expected to come here before the year is over."

Lake Mead became the model for conditions used for future National Recreation Area designations.

"And one of those is to be nearby or within a day or so's driving range of an urban area...a city," says Foster. "So that very much reflects what we have here at Lake Mead. You have Lake Mead and Las Vegas nearby. And it's very important for providing those outdoor recreation opportunities for urban residents."

Beginning in 2009, fee gates were added for access to Lake Mead. That could be just the beginning of changes to lake usage.

"Because of the increased usage combined with environmental issues, I think that leads to an ultimate position of having to further regulate recreational activities," explains Foster. "You have invasive species like the quagga muscles and so forth. You have the concern over water levels and it recedes and that exposes hazards within the lake.

In 2017, Lake Mead levels are actually on the rise for the first time in several years due to heavy winter snows on the western slopes of the Colorado Rockies. But Foster says not to be surprised if more regulation arrives if and when Lake Mead levels begin dropping again.

Foster's book "Lake Mead National Recreation Area: A History of America’s First National Playground" is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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