Amid rising costs and declining enrollment, four of five South Sound-area Scout camps have closed, and some are being logged to raise money.
What’s next for the camps is yet to be resolved, as the Pacific Harbors Council of the Boy Scouts of America faces a nearly 40 percent drop in Scouting membership in the past decade, while costs for everything from insurance to maintenance and operations continue to rise.
The financial problems at the Pacific Harbors Council have been building for years, and the council has to repay a $650,000 loan, almost all of it from losses at the camps, said Ralph Voelker, scout executive for the council. “We don’t want to be closing camps.
“It is sad. We wish we were not in this position; we would much rather keep these camps open, but as the number of kids using the properties continues to decline we just can’t keep them open.”
The situation at the Pacific Harbor Council camps does not affect camps run by the Seattle-based Chief Seattle Council.
Kids have more options today, Voelker said, families are busier, and many are choosing organized team sports over Scouting.
The council’s executive board in December voted to approve a so-called one camp plan, leaving open only Camp Thunderbird, west of Olympia.
Closed are Camp Curran south of Parkland, Pierce County; Camp Delezenne near Elma, Grays Harbor County; Camp Hahobas in Tahuya, Mason County, on Hood Canal; and Camp Kilworth in Federal Way.
Camp Hahobas offered more than 600 acres with three lakes, swaths of forest, a saltwater beach and spectacular views of Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains. Campers competed in lake regattas on homemade rafts and could earn a merit badge for welding and learn about blacksmithing.
The camp’s venerable history began in the 1930s with campers arriving by sailboat on the canal, cutting their tent sites into salal and testing themselves in high adventure in the Olympics. But a final campfire was held last month, after the executive board voted to prepare the camp for sale, one of many possible options for the camp.
“I would love to have a donor call me and save the day,” Voelker said.
The Boy Scouts logged 30 acres of Camp Hahobas this year, receiving $55,000 for the timber to offset financial losses. More logging may get under way this year.
Logging could raise up to $225,000 across the various camp properties, Voelker said.
The long-term future of all four of the closed camps is up in the air. All options are on the table, Voelker said, from outright sale if deeds allow it, such as at Hahobas, to just shuttering the camps and hoping for better times, or devising a new management structure.
Parents and Scout volunteers are working to create a nonprofit organization to assume the costs and upkeep of the waterside Camp Kilworth, which was donated to the Boy Scouts of America in 1934.
“I want what’s best for our Cub Scouts; we don’t want to lose this camp,” said Lynne Long, a longtime volunteer with the camp helping to lead the charge to bring its costs, maintenance and promotion under the management of a new nonprofit.
The Friends of Camp Kilworth have created a Facebook page and an online petition with about 500 signatures supporting continued Scout use of the camp. Envisioned is a partnership with the Pacific Harbors Council and Boy Scouts of America to take over the operating expenses, maintenance, marketing and improvements of the camp and provide Federal Way and Tacoma area Scouts a local option for day camps and weekend outings.
Parents who use Camp Kilworth say Camp Thunderbird outside of Olympia is too far away for families to drive Cub Scouts for day camp with a morning drop-off and evening pickup in I-5 traffic.
Voelker said the council is aware of the issue and is trying to arrange other options for parents for this upcoming season for day camp. “It’s our intent to find a property to do a day camp so they don’t have to go that far.”
With its spectacular view of Puget Sound, mature forest padded with moss and ferns, and fine old lodge buildings, Camp Kilworth is just too good to lose, parents said. Juanita DuPont, of Federal Way, said she would like to see a better justification for such drastic action. “How did we get here that all these camps are being closed?”
The Scouts have tried to sell Camp Kilworth before, only to be turned back by a fight that went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which found that the deed for the camp directed that the property revert to the original family trusts if the council violated the original intent of the gift that the land be used only for Scouting.
“The trust would love to see it continue to be used with that intent,” Bob Casey, attorney representing the family trusts, said Friday. The Boy Scouts are free to enter into any arrangement that keeps Scouting going on the property, Casey said.
From pinewood derbies to flag ceremonies, medieval sword-fight re-enactments and an uncountable number of camp fires, Camp Kilworth has been the center of family activities for which there is no local substitute especially for young Cub Scouts, said Laura Olsen, whose boys grew up enjoying the camp.
Home to eagles and owls, kingfishers and ospreys, Camp Kilworth’s forest is flecked with blooming trillium, and the 25-acre property provides a wildlife corridor between the Dumas Bay Park Wildlife Sanctuary and Dash Point State Park. It feels a world away from the bustle of Federal Way, Olsen said. “Being outdoors in a place like this is what kids need.”
Voelker said conversations are under way about the future of the camp.
“I grew up working at summer camps, and I understand the value of what it is to teach children about the outdoors,” Voelker said. “I just wish we had more kids involved so we had more of a chance to make these good places for them to go.”
The controversy has “opened up some people’s eyes to the potential,” Voelker said.
“We’ll see. We have to keep an open mind. Some may sell, others may sit and wait, and with others we may get a new partner. We will stay open to all these potentials. We have a long way to go; we are not anywhere near to done.”