Unhappy Campers

Why Are Girl Scout Camps Being Closed?

The Girl Scouts are selling their camps, changing their program, and reportedly face serious problems with their pension liabilities. Has the iconic nonprofit lost its way?

Tom Wallace/Star Tribune, via AP

Eagle Island, a 32-acre refuge in Upper Saranac Lake, N.Y., is a National Historic Landmark and one of the finest examples of Great Camp architecture in the Adirondacks. Bequeathed to the Girl Scouts by a wealthy banker in 1937, the camp served girls in the urban enclaves of northern New Jersey for 70 years until it was “rested” and then closed several years ago. Now it’s for sale—at $3.25 million.

And Eagle Island isn’t the only Girl Scout camp on the block.

The Girl Scouts, for whom cookies and camping have long been synonymous, have decided one of them has to go, and it isn’t going to be the addictive cash-cow Thin Mint. In the past five years or so, Girl Scout councils across the country, backed by the parent organization Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA), have put up for sale more than 200 camps in 30 states—more than a third of Girl Scouts properties with acreage are threatened. The regional councils defend the sales by citing the rising costs of maintenance. And, they say, today’s girls aren’t as interested in camping.

Although camping remains a part of the Girl Scouts experience, in recent years it has been sidelined by controversial new programming that places less emphasis on outdoor learning. And camping hasn’t been promoted by cash-strapped councils that have proceeded with sale plans despite fervent protests from their memberships. That the 101-year-old organization reportedly has a woefully underfunded pension plan—currently down by $347 million—at the same time regional councils are trying to unload valuable land assets—has put the organization in the hotseat. While many pension funds took serious hits during the 2008 recession, critics, including one Tennessee council, contend that GSUSA made poor decisions, such as a massive realigning of councils and excessive buyouts, that exacerbated their loss.

In 2007, GSUSA began consolidating 312 regional councils into 112 “high-capacity” councils, some of them ranging over dozens of counties and several states in an attempt to take advantage of “economies of scale.” They have also revamped their programming to make it more relevant for “girls today,” whom they now refer to as their “customers.” But some of the customers aren’t buying, claiming instead that too much of the $750 million raised annually from cookie sales is going toward defraying bloated administration costs.

Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa’s proposed 2013 budget, for example, shows $2,000 allocated to replace roofs most in need at camp properties, but nearly a quarter of a million dollars for upgrades at offices and program centers, including parking lot repaving and landscaping. Tax forms for 2010, the last year released, showed that out of the more than $6 million in revenue, $3.53 million went to staff and benefits. CEO Diane Nelson did not reply to requests for comment.

The decision to sell more than a third of the organization’s camp properties has steadily galvanized opposition movements, with organizers saying that the biggest losers are the girls themselves. Now that Eagle Island camp is closed, for instance, “it’s the very girls that need it the most that are denied it,” says Chris Hildebrand of Friends of Eagle Island, an alumnae group that has spent several years appealing the camp’s closing and is now suing the Girl Scouts Heart of NJ (GSHONJ), which inherited the camp when districts were merged in 2007. “Inner-city girls and suburban girls are not exposed to the out of doors and to the wilderness,” Hildebrand says. “They’re not going to understand the importance of protecting it. And these are our future leaders.”

No Girl Scouts have stepped onto Eagle Island since 2008. Due to the departure of the fulltime caretaker, winter repairs that year were not made in time for summer camping, which was canceled. That fall, the board approved a plan to reopen the island, requesting it to be staffed up by the following spring and progress reports filed. None of that happened. One year later, a new board voted to sell the camp.

According to the lawsuit filed by Friends of Eagle Island, GSHONJ CEO Susan Brooks defended the sale by saying, “I have pensions to pay.” Hildebrand describes another instance where, when questioned by a parent as to what she’d do with the money from the sale, Brooks said that the plumbing in the Westwood, N.J., office needed to be fixed. “This is a camp that’s historic, and she doesn’t care,” says Hildebrand. As they are in litigation, Brooks preferred not to comment at this time. (Brooks has since resigned from her position as CEO.)

There are also lawsuits pending in Ohio, Iowa, and Alabama related to the sale of camps. Last spring in Indiana, plaintiffs won a case against the council there over Camp Wildwood. One of the most contentious battles is raging in northeastern Ohio. Five camps there are on the block, which would leave only two camps open for a membership of roughly 40,000 girls. Council board representatives defending the sales claimed that only 10 percent of the girls camped. To Lynn Richardson, life-time scout, troop leader, and founder of the TrefoilIntegrity website, that just didn’t ring true.

A subsequent review of camp usage documents by Richardson turned up a figure of 55 percent. Regional councils all over the country were also coming up with similarly low camping stats—because they appeared to be only counting council-run events. Jennifer Peter, GSUSA program project manager for camp & outdoors, acknowledges that there is a distinction to be made between camping that is organized by the councils and informal camping by troops or the larger service units. But, as Richardson points out, the “largest usage is the troops—the volunteers with their small group of girls for the weekend.” Trying to organize these volunteer-run outings without the benefit of camps owned and run by the Girl Scouts is “like trying to run Little League baseball but there’s no fields,” says Richardson. M. Jane Christyson, GSNEO’s new CEO, says camping is only measured in “participant days,” and “I am unaware of any documentation that the group could have been looking at that would help them make the estimate that 50-55 percent of Girl Scouts use the camps.… I think the Properties Committee and the board did a very thoughtful and through analysis. The decisions made were studied, researched, and evaluated by experts. We also received member input.”

The Ohio suit claims that the board squelched dissent by categorically turning down pro-camp nominees. According to Richardson, the board even called in the cops on peaceful demonstrations. “I thought, oh my gosh, [the police] are here because of us! It just blew my mind,” she recalls. In spring of 2011 the Ohio board voted to sell five camps and renovate the remaining two. That fall, frustrated membership called a special assembly of delegates, wherein 60 percent voted to block the sale of camps until they were approved by the General Assembly. Despite the majority vote, the board wouldn’t change course. The protesters sued to have more open proceedings, and the case is on appeal.

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Camp supporters in eastern Iowa are also reaching out to the courts for the chance to have a greater say in the sale of their properties. Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois were set to sell all of their four remaining camps this past spring. Minutes before a preliminary injunction hearing, the council agreed to table its vote on the sale of the camps. According to the Save Our Scout Camps website, the lawsuit remains active.

Carolyn Davis, 16, a senior scout from Dubuque, Iowa, who has been going to Camp Little Cloud since she was 5, chokes up at the idea of the closings: “I was always looking forward to getting my camp name and being a counselor when I grew up. It was just hard to see that possibly—and probably—go away.”

Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa has since reached out to campers and conducted town hall meetings to discuss creative ways to keep the camps open. CEO Diane Nelson said, “The council is not the enemy. We are trying to figure out how to keep all four camps open.”

In southeastern Pennsylvania, membership is up in arms over the divesting of the popular camps Tohikanee and Tweedale. Their loss means there will be no camp within an hour’s drive for a significant chunk of the suburban Philadelphia council’s girls and volunteers. Members were also frustrated by closed-door board and property-committee meetings and others, such as leader Lorie Pye Angeline, say the survey that collected input from campers was flawed, because the survey was conducted with the assistance of Domokur Architects, whose head of planning, Gregory Copeland, also served as a land consultant for GSUSA for two years. The membership felt misdirected by the survey and they felt that it was a conflict of interest to have someone who could potentially benefit from a plan to close some camps and renovate the remaining camps involved in the survey.

In a 2010 article entitled “A Shift for Survival” (PDF) in Camp Magazine, Copeland said the Girl Scouts camps “are [their] greatest asset and greatest liability,” a phrase often repeated by officials with the Girl Scouts parent organization and councils around the country. He also estimated that in the next decade the number of Girl Scouts camp properties would be halved. Copeland did not reply to requests for comment.

Despite similar language and tactics used by regional councils all over the country, GSUSA maintains there is “no master plan” to sell off camps. At a meeting with The Daily Beast at the Scouts’ 5th Avenue headquarters in Manhattan, a staffer burst out laughing “at the thought of a master plan” and laughter among the six experts assembled ensued. However, in a memo dated May 24, 2013 from then GSUSA CFO Florence Casilles to council CEOs regarding the National Girl Scout Retirement Plan (NGSRP), it appears that GSUSA was actively considering the sale and leaseback of council properties to fund the pension plan as well as donations of property to the plan, and the “identification of a national real estate broker to assist councils in selling property with use of funds to contribute to the plan.” Despite being called a “potentially good service” in the same memo, the national agent idea was “not deemed to be a good strategy for funding pension because of the likely perception in the community of the use of property to fund non-girl related programs.” The plan is currently frozen and GSUSA is appealing to Congress to change the way it can be funded.

So was GSUSA just another victim of a global recession, as GSUSA execs have stated? The Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee don’t think so. They’re suing the national organization and asking to be spun off from the pension plan. Their suit, filed last year, maintains that the generous early-retirement packages, offered by GSUSA to almost 2,000 employees when the councils merged, put undue stress on the pension plan and further that the realignment directive left the majority of councils in financial distress. The Tennessee chapter states that the parent organization “has no authority” to implement its new funding plan, which would require councils to contribute up to 16 percent of payroll to the plan by 2023.

For some, such as NorCal Council, the consolidation of councils went relatively smoothly. The northern California council is now one of the largest in the country and has so far retained all 12 of its premerger camps. CEO Marina Parks attributes the stability to the transparency that was brought to the process but acknowledges that their property evaluation is still ongoing.

For others, it was disastrous. As Suellen Nelles, CEO of the Farthest North Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, describes it, “Most everybody wasn’t questioning it, they were at that point trying to save their councils, close the mergers, create a whole new way of work with a whole new staff. They were just trying to function day to day, many struggling, most of their reserves depleted.”

Manitou Council of Wisconsin did however question the merger—all the way to court. They sued to retain their council boundaries, positing themselves as a franchise under Wisconsin’s fair dealership law. In 2011 they won on appeal. Due to a similar law in Alaska, CEO Nelles piggybacked on that case to retain her premerger council, calling it “the best decision we ever made.”

Cheryl Brown, former CEO of the Conifer Council in Texas/Arkansas also saw the storm coming. “I really felt like after a few years, after they [the newly formed council] had gone through all the liquid money, they were going to have figure out assets that needed to be sold in order to keep it going… so all of the membership voted on it and we moved [our camps] into a 501(c)3 holding company.” Adds Brown, “I look back at the [tax forms] from the five councils before the merger took place to the [tax forms] now, [and] even with inflation, the administration costs have more than doubled.”

GSUSA won’t intervene nor will it comment on the legal battles being fought over camps and protocol. “They’re their own 501(c)3s, we don’t have any say. We can offer advice,” says GSUSA media manager Michelle Tompkins But they can comment on the members that refuse to go gently into that campfire-smoke-tinged good night: “In most cases it seems like the people who are complaining were a little late to the party.” Members—both young and old—say they weren’t late to the party, they simply weren’t invited. “It’s about honesty, it’s about democracy, it’s about where this organization is going,” says Ohio’s Richardson. Tompkins does concede that some cases “are not to be taken lightly… we know that we’re dealing with people’s memories.”

GSUSA frequently frames the camp supporters’ motivation as nostalgia. “As much as I understand and have a sympathetic ear to ‘we want it the way it was when I was a child,’ it’s not possible,” says Mark Allsup, a GSUSA land consultant. “We cannot stay open under those circumstances, because the rules and regulations are constantly evolving.” He cites stricter compliance for things such as sprinkler systems. When asked if regulatory compliance was the primary financial hurdle in keeping the camps open, Allsup responded, “I don’t know if it’s primary, but it’s a contributing factor.”

The fight to keep the contested camps open has drawn back the curtain on the organization’s funding problems. But GSUSA’s shift away from the outdoors began before its financial troubles started. Ever since it veered from founder Juliette Gordon Low’s intent of building confidence through the outdoors, GSUSA has struggled to find the key formula to draw girls and volunteers into the fold. “I do think that some of the stuff needed to be updated, but it’s just so sweeping they threw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Texas’s Brown.

The current Scouting program, which replaced the earlier, short-lived Studio 2B curriculum, features a set of three guided activities called Leadership Journeys, an edited-down set of merit badges, and other varied events.

West Chester, Pennsylvania troop leader Julia Smith says of Journeys, “I don’t like them at all. It’s like school. It’s like a chore to them [the girls],” echoing similar complaints across the country. “In our March meeting, they said that Journeys are only selling at about 20 percent of membership,” says Alaska’s Nelles. “If only 20 percent of your members are buying the book, the book’s a failure!”

When asked about the “read reflect discuss” slant of Journeys, Andrea Bastiani Archibald, GSUSA development psychologist program development & research, said, “It’s really too bad they’re seeing it that way… Certainly there is reflection time but active hands-on activities are built right in… Not only do we have this leadership experience that helps girls discover themselves and their values, connect with others locally and globally, and take action on issues of concern to them, but we have ways that volunteers engage girls that are really quite special.”

A growing movement of volunteers is advocating for an “Outdoor Journey” to be added to the current set and seven councils have so far officially requested a conversation on an Outdoor Journey for the 2014 National Council Session in Salt Lake City. For her Ambassador “advocacy” Journey, Sarah Young, a 15-year-old Gold Award Scout (equivalent of Eagle Scout) from Pflugerville, Texas, chose the thesis “The Girl Scouts lack of outdoor skill badges and the current Journeys do not encourage camping.” She compiled a survey for older girls on the outdoors and got almost 2,000 responses in less than two months. “I felt it was important for my council and GSUSA to know what girls really wanted,” she says. “Those girls who have fallen in love with Girl Scouting—give them a way to learn the classic camping skills— these have been removed from the skill badge program.” Armed with her data, she took a meeting at the New York City headquarters with Joanne Berg, executive editor of girl experience, in November where she says “I felt very unlistened to.” Undaunted, she complained in an email to Berg and CEO Ana Maria Chávez and got a second, much more attentive, phone meeting. “Because I came with a plan on how to improve and not just ‘gripe,’ I think I got heard. I still want to know what it will take—is it money, is it interest?”

New financial literacy (PDF) badges are now part of the existing cookie sale. But many of the camp supporters claim the fundraiser has now become the program. The average box of Girl Scout cookies costs $3.50 to $4.00. About 90 cents goes to the supplier and about 50 cents goes to the troop. The rest goes to the regional council. The scouts “get very little money for their troop for the work they’re doing,” says Ohio’s Richardson. “When the council was supporting the camps, that’s OK.” But now that the camps are being divested and the councils still keep the money raised by cookie sales, “this becomes child exploitation. It’s not OK.” (In comparison, one half of Boy Scouts’ fundraising profit goes back to the patrol, according to Mark Moshier, team leader of local council fund development for BSA.)

Programming also includes council events. Caleigh Sullivan, 16, a Cleveland area Silver Award Scout, describes a “mall lock-in,” an outing offered twice a year: “You go to the mall and all the stores stay open all night and the Girl Scouts get locked in and you just shop all night… There’s really not much we can do anymore because we can’t get a place to camp.”

Even Girl Scout merchandise has become questionably “modern”: Karen Sheahan, a moderator of the SOS Camps website, described an item she found in the Girl Scout shop online: “Did you know you can buy Girl Scout green press-on nails with a trefoil pattern? Just try opening your pocketknife with those.”

But you may not need that pocketknife anyway—it’s possible to rise through the ranks all the way from Daisy to Ambassador without camping at all. “It is, but we wouldn’t want that,” says GSUSA psychologist Bastiani Archibald. “We love camping.”

The approximately 400 camps that do remain are now hours away for many campers and can still be costly for some (Girl Scouts membership fees run about $30—uniforms, program materials, and camping fees are extra). In Indiana, Girl Scouts volunteers took over a camp that was sold by the regional council in the merger and for one week in the summer are able to run a camp that costs one third of what it costs to run a council-run camp. “They [volunteers] operate, raise money, and run the camp so the girls of Madison County can have a day camp to go to,” said co-director Jennifer Kaszuba.

As frustration mounts within the Scouting world, a negative PR snowball builds. Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa has asked Congress to investigate GSUSA’s funding. And the financial website Motley Fool wrote, “For many parents there’s less incentive to work hard on fundraising efforts when they know an alarmingly large portion of the proceeds from the labors will not go toward current programs for girls but rather toward getting a distant national organization out of its financial bind.”

Meanwhile other organizations rush to fill the vacuum. Rival group Frontier Girls was founded in 2007 in California by Kerry Cordry, a long-time Girl Scout and troop leader. Frontier Girls goes back to scouting’s roots and although still small, its troop numbers have doubled (to about 150) in the past year. Cordry says it’s no secret that they’re mostly flipped Girl Scouts. American Heritage Girls, founded in Ohio in 1995, whose volunteers are required to sign a statement of Christian faith, is also gaining popularity, especially among conservatives who construe a GSUSA allegiance with Planned Parenthood (although there isn’t one). Some older girls are also defecting to the Boy Scouts’ Venturing program, which features “high adventure.”

As sites like the windowless basement rooms of Rhode Island’s touted new urban program center increasingly take the place of starlight and campfire, traditionalists say something timeless is being irrevocably lost. Jane I. Duax, a lifelong member from Iowa who has been instrumental in unifying the save-the-camps movement, notes, “People donated the camps to the Girl Scouts because they knew they would be good stewards of the land.” Instead, properties such as Ohio’s Camp Pleasant Valley have been carved up into parcels to support suburban sprawl, and endangered camps in Iowa and Ohio have been threatened with fracking.

Martha Grace Mize, an 18-year-old Ambassador Scout from Tuscaloosa who become a board delegate in an effort to save Alabama’s historic Camp Coleman, says, “In the past [the Girl Scouts] have always made the right decisions—hopefully we can still make them in the future.”