Sales of camp sites throw Girl Scouts into turmoil

Monday, May 27, 2013 | 7:04 p.m. CDT; updated 7:25 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 27, 2013

IOWA CITY, Iowa — When it came time to draw up a budget, one of Iowa's regional Girl Scout councils reviewed its programs and made a proposal that would have been unthinkable a generation ago: selling its last four summer camps.

Troop leader Joni Kinsey was stunned. For decades, the camps had been cherished places where thousands of young girls spent summer breaks hiking, huddling around campfires and building friendships. Kinsey, whose daughter learns to train horses at camp, immediately started a petition to fight the idea.

Other scouting alums and volunteers have taken up the cause, too, packing public meetings, sending letters to newspapers and recording a protest song for YouTube. When those efforts failed, they filed a lawsuit.

Nationwide, Girl Scout councils are confronting intense opposition as they sell camps that date back to the 1950s and earlier. Leaders say the properties have become a financial drain at a time when girls are less interested in camp. Defenders insist the camping experience shaped who they are and must be preserved for future generations.

"Those camps still belong to us, not just literally as members of the organization, but as people who feel like, 'That's part of my home life,'" Kinsey said. "When camps get closed, it's devastating. I mean, heartbreaking. We adults can cry over it and do."

Pro-camp activists have boycotted cookie drives, held overnight camp-ins outside council offices, filed legal actions and tried to elect sympathetic volunteers to governing boards.

The other side has responded with its own aggressive tactics. At public meetings, some Girl Scout councils have hired facilitators to tightly manage the agenda and security guards to watch over protesters. Others have used parliamentary tactics to call protesters out of order.

Both sides insist they want what's right for the girls, but compromise is hard to find.

In Ohio, police were present to keep protesters off council property during a ceremony last year to mark the closing of Camp Crowell/Hilaka. Opponents have raised $80,000 to pursue a lawsuit, so far unsuccessful, seeking to keep the camp and others open.

"Democracy has been completely squelched," said volunteer Lynn Richardson of Bedford, Ohio, who recalled how police were at their campouts on the council lawn and parliamentarians have called her out of order. "They will hide behind rules and regulations, but they are shutting us down."

Because of declining camp attendance and increasing maintenance costs, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars subsidizing its camps. But the group backed down from its proposal in March, one day before its board was to vote on the closings.

The board agreed to keep the camps open for now and to turn Camp Conestoga into a modern residential camp. But the council still plans to eventually sell unused parts of three other sites.

Diane Nelson, CEO of the 20,000-member organization, said the decision to keep the camps came after an outpouring from volunteers who promised to promote and manage them at a lower cost. But she blasted "a small group of individuals" for "taking the negative approach."

Nelson acknowledged hiring facilitators to ensure that meetings weren't dominated by a few individuals and bringing in security guards as a safety precaution because of fears of rowdy protests, which didn't materialize.

"It's not that we were afraid of any of our volunteers. We didn't know who was going to come," she said.

The Girl Scouts, which began a century ago, established hundreds of camps nationwide as the organization expanded. But in recent decades, the group has consolidated its local councils. That process accelerated dramatically under a plan that cut them from 330 to 112 by 2009.

The restructuring left groups with additional properties to manage, many featuring old cabins and dining halls that need upgrades.

Gregory Copeland of Domokur Architects in Akron, Ohio, a consultant to local councils, said by 2020, the number of Girl Scouts-owned camps could easily be cut in half. He said the newly merged groups have a glut of properties they cannot afford to maintain, let alone fill with programming.

"While it's a hugely emotional issue, there's just realistically no way they can end up sustaining that amount of land," he said. "The emotional ties have nothing to do with logic or dollars or anything else. People just don't want to lose what they feel is theirs."

Scouts from the younger generation are accustomed to technology and comfort and have more summer activities to choose from. Girl Scouts USA estimates that only 10 percent typically attend a residential summer camp every year, while 25 percent will spend a weekend camping with their troop.

The national group does not keep data on the proposals, but says a "considerable number" of councils have opted to sell one or more sites, said Mark Allsup, a property consultant for the organization. He said some councils have handled sales smoothly by keeping members informed during reviews so that final decisions aren't a surprise and are backed up with data.

Some decisions "are being made soundly, and we are very supportive of them," he said. "And, like with anybody else, we have good students and C students."

Critics say any sales undermine a key Girl Scouts tradition. They have a saying: "I am who I am today because of camp."

Kinsey, a University of Iowa art history professor, credits her experience with giving her a love of landscape painting and friendships that include an English woman who named a child after her. She said the Girl Scouts have become too focused on money, and she was outraged by the security presence at one meeting.

"We just keep shaking our heads, 'This is just not Girl Scouts'," Kinsey said at her Iowa City home, where she keeps her old Scout memorabilia. "I've started saying there's been a corporate takeover of Girl Scouting and that Girl Scouts are losing their way."

In New York, an alumni group is suing to block the sale of Eagle Island Camp, originally built for former Vice President Levi Morton in 1902. Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey advertised the 31-acre property for sale in 2011 and recently lowered the asking price to $3.25 million.

Last month, a judge ordered an Alabama council to turn over documents to critics fighting its plan to sell 88-year-old Camp Coleman.

The council had initially demanded that the group pay $22,000 for staff time and copy charges, but the judge called that excessive. Opponents recently succeeded in electing 11 members to the 29-member council, and now hope to keep it open.

Jim Franklin of Birmingham got involved after his 8-year-old granddaughter, who rides horses there, came to him in tears.

"Everybody, including me, started out saying this is just about our camp. It's not," he said. "I've talked to folks in Ohio and Iowa and Michigan and New York, and all of a sudden everybody has realized, 'Wait a minute, we've got a national problem here.'"

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Michael Williams May 27, 2013 | 9:53 p.m.

I'm sympathetic, but in a world increasingly secular with values that change on the whim of individual brains and not a higher power, the fate of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts is in doubt. Declining interest in membership and lack of revenues are killers for a program.

And that's a real shame. I was a member of the latter group (I would have preferred the former group because that's where the girls were, an attitude folks quickly figured out) and my eventual career was rooted there along with many values I still hold dear. All in all, the experience provoked self-discipline rules along with things like delayed gratification and love for God, Country, family, and community. I'm sure Girl Scouts have served the same role for women.

Best of all was camp. Kids and young adults everywhere, learning about all sorts of stuff, swimming, mess hall, camp fires, initiations, raking leaves from under the tent base to find a copperhead so we could run in circles and scream our fool heads off. I still know how to tie knots...and I use that knowledge more than I would have thought. I also still know how to shoot rifles, identify trees, canoe, swim, handle a snake (nonpoisonous), set a table, and clean up afterwards. I also still know how to say "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am."

Folks faced with loss of their past camps are in the same boat as Columbia folks trying to preserve their past....either recognize interest is declining and do something to reverse that, pony up the money yourself, or let it go. No use suing the Girl Scouts...they have a budget just like everyone else (except the feds).

PS: I have no problems with the recent decision regarding gay members in the Boy Scouts. The main abuse problem within the Boy Scouts has been pedophilia. However, I also think the Boy Scouts is a private organization and non-members/non-supporters should just shut up and stay out.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 28, 2013 | 9:16 a.m.

The current problems of Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America are sadly to be expected, and indicate a far wider trend: elimination of right to membership exclusion by private (NGO) organizations, whether religious or secular. That, in turn, is an indirect assault on any remaining assurance of privacy for either individual citizens or groups of citizens.

To be replaced by WHAT? A lunatic utopian fantacy, and an ugly fantacy it will certainly turn out to be! A Class A nightmare, most likely.

Those of us who are too old or ill to see it come to fruition should consider ourselves fortunate, but we should also be concerned for future generations of what was once a free society.

A republic founded by giants is in the process of falling under control of persons having the mental processes and "moral relevance" of pygmies (with my sincere apologies to pygmies). Once it (the republic) is gone it won't be coming back any time soon.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 28, 2013 | 10:38 a.m.

Ellis: I don't know your personal experiences with Boy Scouts (except for the Eagle rank I share), but I will relate some personal observations.

In my experience, Boy Scouts never included the "pretty" people, the jocks, the popular since they weren't interested. Most often, the Cubs and Boy Scouts were...dare I say...of the middle class sort from parents with deep middle class values based upon religion which may or may not be Christian (but "God" was a huge part). "Nerds" would not be an erroneous description and I'm proudly one although I didn't like it much then.

Parents of scouts saw great value in things like merit badges, which were a form of liberal arts education (i.e., diverse) in all sorts of things like swimming, cycling , lifesaving, first aid, camping, cooking, citizenship, computers, nature, rifling, archery, community service, and more others that I've forgotten than I can remember. Merit badges were of the philosophy that a well-rounded person should know a little about a whole lot while eventually deciding a career where you know a whole lot about a little. Such an education allowed at least some level of conversation with folks with interests different from me.

We were outside and we got filthy. The medical benefits were enormous. As a consequence, I now tell my grandchildren..."Go outside, and don't come back until you are either filthy or wet and preferably both."

We learned leadership as we grew and gained more responsibilities. We were part of a group, one which (with parental involvement) nurtured us in our growth....a real live "it takes a village" show. While we met (and were sponsored...with monetary support) at a church, my troop came from all sorts of life's walks and schools. We were the poor and the not-so-poor. We "belonged".

We even had our own magazine that I absolutely devoured when it came in the mail.

We learned independence by feeling sorry for ourselves the first time we were left off by parents at a 10 day scout camp...and hated our parents when they came to get us back.

And, we became men. Well-rounded ones. There are many, many good reasons why so many successful men have "Boy Scouts" on their resume.

For liberals and conservatives alike, what's not to like?***

Well, ok, for liberals I guess there's God, making well-rounded men, and the sane rules of societal structure. But, other than that.........

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm May 28, 2013 | 11:15 a.m.


Why take such a great and well-written post about a valued organization and end it with such a low road type comment? Is that how they taught you to converse in the Scouts?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 28, 2013 | 11:25 a.m.


Yer right.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 28, 2013 | 12:26 p.m.

As one news article recently pointed out, something like 70% of the Boy Scout sponsors are churches or other religiously-based organizations; therefore one could reasonably (I believe) infer that attempts to ditch Scouting are an indirect attack on religion.

Our troop, one of the nation's oldest (we wore a sleeve patch with a silver border surrounding the troop number, in recognition of that) was sponsored by one of the more "liberal" (in the religious sense) Protestant churches in the city. We had Scouts who were Protestant, Catholic and, yes, even Jewish, as well as with no particular religious preference.

In my experience most Scouts don't advance beyond First Class. I believe this has much to do with the fact that the three higher ranks are each based on earning a required number of merit badges (including, for Life and Eagle, certain specified merit badges), whereas the lower ranks are handled largely within troop activities.

I can't comment on Cub Scout activities, since I was never a Cub Scout.

I achieved Star Scout status while still in the troop; Life and Eagle Scout while in a Senior Scout group, which was not church sponsored and met weekly, either in private homes or outdoors.

In my opinion, Scouting (both male and female) offers youngsters a useful and structured environment outside their home and school at an age when that is something that's needed.

I would remind everyone that when the Nazis assumed control of Germany in 1933 one of their first acts was to outlaw any organizations similar to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (Girl Guides) and put all youngsters into Hitler Youth (its female version translated into English as "German Maidens"). Doesn't everyone know what THAT lead to?

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