Selling Out

May 7, 2010

Excuse me while I get a bit political here.

I work in land use and natural resources professionally—that’s my day job that pays for my Scouting adventures—so I get my nose out of joint when I see professional Scouters messing with the use of Scout lands and natural resources.

At the same time, I work with many communities and community organizations that struggle with balancing budgets in times of declining revenues and changing customer expectations.  We just can’t continue to do more with less.

We have seen many youth-serving organizations (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church-based camps) look at divesting property as counts decline and expenses rise.  Our shared mission is serving youth, not maintaining property.

Nobody would disagree with that.  However…

There is an inherent trust placed in us by the community as conservators of the natural environment.  We’re supposed to be the good guys.  We’re supposed to Do Our Best.  People donate time, talent and dollars because they trust us to take care of  both the boys and the woods (prairies, lakes, streams, mountains).

Otherwise we’re just another nameless, faceless out of state corporation peddling snake-oil and nostalgia.

The Easy Thing Isn’t Usually the Right Thing

Selling off parts of historic camping property may look like the easy thing to do on paper, especially to harried Council executives in the big city 200 miles away from an isolated campground.  Develop 10 acres to save 100.  Cut off 100 acres to save 1,000.  Consolidate 3 small camps into 1 that’s easier to manage.

I noticed, in a professional publication, a March 2010 Michigan Court of Appeals decision upholding a local community’s zoning decision counter to the desires of the Chicago Area Council BSA.  Camp Owasippe is located on 4,800 acres near Muskegon, MI,  in operation since 1911.  The Court Opinion states that “Camp Owasippe is the oldest Boy Scout camp in America,” which may settle some Centennial arguments floating around the net.

The first 40 acres that became Camp Owasippe was purchased in 1910 near Whitehall, Michigan. In 1911 a small group of scouts and workmen dug a well and built the basics of a camp. In 1912 they held their first summer camp operation there. The camp was originally at Crystal Lake and was called Camp White in 1912. In 1913 the name was changed to Camp Owasippe. Since vacant land is not really a camp, 1910 would not seem to be the start date for Owasippe. They took a steamship to get there for camp in 1912 so it isn’t likely troops were hiking in from Chicago for weekend camping in 1911. The 1919 camp manual gave the original name of Camp White and actually said the camp was established in 1912 (when they held their first camp). The Chicago Council was using the 1912 date in 1972 as the Owasippe patch that year says it was the camp’s 60th anniversary. In 1961 they used a patch that said 1911 was the start date (their 50th anniversary patch). In 1996 they put on their camp patch that it was Owasippe’s 85th anniversary (using the 1911 date). They seem to have been undecided as to which of the two years to use. I suppose you could take your pick (and many will) of 1910, 1911 or 1912 but I would have gone with the year 1912 since it wasn’t used as a camp until then.

Even though it started out with 40 acres it eventually grew to about 14,000 acres in size. Some of it was sold off in recent years including the original 40 acres so that the camp currently contains about 5,000 acres. This is NOT to say there were two different Owasippes in two different locations as there was not. They didn’t buy a second site, move to it and sell off the first. The original and current acreage was all included in one massive reservation. It is still a very large camp with a tremendous history. Their camp manual, which is online, has an extremely interesting story in it about Chief Owasippe and his two sons.

But I digress.  In 1981, the local township (a legal jurisdiction in Michigan) placed the camp in conservation zoning, which permitted special uses such as campgrounds and trails.  By 2002 nearly half of the township was categorized in a similar zoning designation.  The Chicago Area Council, though, wanted to sell the camp to developers and asked for rezoning.  They were denied, and sued the township.

The Chicago Council, the property owner, initially sued the township over the zoning at a time when it was trying to sell the property for $19 million to a Holland-area businessman. The township had turned down the Scouts’ request to rezone the property in a way that would have allowed the construction of up to 2,400 homes….

In February, the Chicago Council announced it was working with the Nature Conservancy to find conservation-minded buyers for the property so that it could remain in its natural state. The Council intends to keep some of the property for continued Boy Scouts camping.

The particular situation is interesting, but not essential.  We see the pattern repeated across the country.  Property was donated in trust, donations received in trust, service given in trust.  We repay that trust by selling off our heritage.

Even a Tenderfoot knows that’s no way to run a railroad, merit badge or not.



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