On the bank of the Middle Loup River, Jim Rice gets ready to set on out his airboat — a big, square rowboat with a huge engine in the back.
“Now this engine is out of like a 2012 Cadillac Escalade or Corvette,” he says while turning the key. The engine roars to life as Rice navigates the boat out of the shed and down onto the shallow river. In less than a minute, we’re cruising along the Middle Loup at high speed, the engine droning through earmuffs.
Jim and his wife Dianne live next to the Highway 281 bridge on the edge of St. Paul in central Nebraska. Eight years ago they bought this property, opened an airboat shop and put in ramps for people to access the river.
Jim and Dianne Rice allow airboats and jeeps to access the Middle Loup River from their property. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
Everyone agrees airboats are loud. Especially when you get close to 70 on the river at once, like the first weekend in August during Thunder on the Loup – an annual airboat drag racing rally held a few miles down river. But enthusiasts like Rice say most of the time the disturbance is brief.
“It just passes by. It’s like the Harleys coming down the highway here, or the train going across — it’s LOUD when it goes by, but then it’s gone,” Rice said.
But that’s not how it seems to some local landowners, like Becky Puncochar, who lives a few miles upstream from the Rices.
Airboat enthusiast Jim Rice says he asks boats to avoid stretches of the river where landowners have complained. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
“During the peak of the season, on the weekends especially, we will hear airboats run in the morning from 7 o’clock into the night and after dark. And we can be in the house, windows closed, TV on, curtains pulled, shades drawn, not only can you hear the airboats, you can feel the airboats,” Puncochar said.
The Rices acknowledge airboat noise can be bothersome, and say they try to be good neighbors.
“We don’t allow no boats out at night. That’s courtesy, okay. The airboats can go. They have lights, they can go wherever they want but we tell them, you put in here, you’re back before dark,” Rice said.
Jim Rice’s airboat. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
Recreational airboating and jeeping has grown more popular in Nebraska, especially on the shallow and sandy Loup and Platte rivers. This year, the Rices hosted five jeep or airboat rallies on their property. And that was the catalyst, Puncochar said, “where people have said, we’ve finally had enough.” She and other nearby landowners have formed a nonprofit called F.O.R. (Friends of the Rivers) Nebraska to advocate for more regulation around airboat and jeep river recreation across the state.
Beyond the noise, Punchocar said she’s concerned about people trespassing on her riverfront property.
“The river channel is owned by the public. You can’t own the water. But as soon as they touch tire, toe or hull to the river bed, they are on someone’s property, and they need to have permission to be there,” Puncochar said.
Becky Puncochar has formed a nonprofit to advocate for more regulation of airboats and jeeps on Nebraska rivers. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
Puncochar wants to lower the maximum noise level and ban night boating. As for jeeps:
“Ideally we’d like for the jeeps to be off the rivers all together, but if they’re going to be on the rivers then they need to be permitted,” Puncochar said.
Rice said most people on the river are law-abiding, but, “you’ve got that 10 percent, I don’t care where we’re at, that 10 percent tries to ruin it for everybody else. But the jeepers pretty much police themselves, just like the airboaters. Somebody does something wrong, boom, they’re on them.”
It’s not just neighbors who see impacts from jeeps and airboats. Robert Harms is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in central Nebraska, which monitors threatened and endangered species in the state.
“So least terns and piping plovers, where they nest is large elevated sandbars on the Platte and Loup rivers. But the shallow water situation make good habitat for airboats and jeeps as well,” Harms said, and noise from airboats and jeeps driving down the river can harm these endangered birds.
“Come Fourth of July weekend, every one of our nesting sandbar islands is just covered with jeep tracks,” Harms said.
Airboats have to comply with state boating regulations and airboat rally organizers have to get a permits from the state game and parks commission to minimize their impact on wildlife. Most of the big motorized events take place later in the summer after birds have left the nests.
The situation with jeeps on the river is a little different. Jeeps aren’t regulated because they aren’t boats. Drivers can be prosecuted for trespassing or endangered species violations but local and state authorities say enforcement is tough: not enough officers, and it’s hard to track down offenders.
Jeepers out on the river in Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the River Rats Association.
Jeepers and airboat enthusiasts deny charges of damaging the environment or private lands. They say this is their form of enjoying the river.
“I tell people that owning a $50,000 to $60,000 airboat is way cheaper than any psychiatrist you can go to,” said Gary Greving of the Nebraska Airboaters Association.
Jeff Brandenburg, head of the River Rats Association—a jeeping group—said the activity is family-friendly and relaxing.
“You cruise for a little bit down the river, you’re just going at idle speed — one, two mile an hour is all you go. There’s usually a bunch of people that meet up out in the center and have a good time conversing with each other,” Brandenburg said.
Jeff Brandenburg and Craig Malasek of the River Rats Association. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
“Kind of like tailgating at a football game, you know?” added jeeper Craig Malasek.
Brandenburg said jeepers spend money on gas and meals, in addition to donating funds to community groups. He said his group tries to encourage responsible jeep activity because they care greatly about the river.
“We feel that if we don’t take care of it, who’s going to? And we don’t want to lose that right to the river. So we try very hard of making sure the landowners are happy,” Brandenburg said.
This year the River Rats acquired new property on the Platte River near Central City. Photo by Ariana Brocious.
That conflict could be easing, at least for landowner Becky Puncochar. Her downstream neighbors, the Rices, say they won’t host so many events on their property again, partly because of local pushback. And the jeep rallies will likely move: earlier this year, the River Rats bought their own property on the Platte River near Central City.