May 28, 2013 9:28:45 AM
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 it 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 Scout-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.'"