Sunday, March 15, 2015

Michigan Scout Camps

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

In recent years, the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, Scouts Canada, and other organizations have been closing and selling-off camps across the US and Canada. The Girl Scouts especially have been selling, over 200 camps in 30 states in just the past 5 years. In Michigan, the Girl Scouts have closed or sold several camps, including Camp Woodsong along the Black River in Clyde Township. I assisted Saint Clair County in acquiring the camp as a park back in 2007 by performing an ecological assessment of the land for a successful grant request from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Data for the Boy Scouts of America is not readily available, but based on news articles and “save our camp” web sites, many camps or large pieces of camps have been sold or closed in the past 10 years. Scouts Canada has closed about 60 camps since 2004 and has also sold many of them, or large pieces.

In my opinion, which is shared by many, the Scouts have become top-heavy organizations with too much professional staff drawing excessively large salaries and pensions. A few well-publicized investigative articles have been published about this issue in the past few years. At the same time, Scout memberships have been steadily declining for decades. Unfortunately, the organizations seem to be raiding their camps to temporarily fix their financial problems. In most cases, the value of these lands has increased significantly from the time they were acquired, many just after World War II, creating big financial temptations.

I think it’s wrong to take advantage of the camps, and contrary to the foundational principles of scouting. A majority of these camps were purchased decades ago at amazingly low prices. Many camps were acquired through land donations, or bargain sales, or with the help of other charities such as local Rotary, Lions, or Exchange Clubs. The generosity of a long line of people and organizations is usually at stake. Donors expected these camps would continue on for future generations, not be sold just 50 or 60 years down the road to balance budgets or create special funds. For decades, so many scouts and scouters have given their labor and resources to maintain and improve these camps. Each camp represents a unique heritage or legacy that connects young and old across each scout council. I don’t see how anyone, especially in scouting, can just throw all that away. To top it off, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts don’t pay property taxes, so building maintenance and upgrades are probably the biggest property expenses. There is some insurance cost for every camp, but most of this appears to be covered through camp fees and annual membership fees, which is only $24 for Boy Scouts. When camps run deficits, program expenses are often the biggest factor, not the camp itself.

The main entry gate at Silver Trails Scout Reservation.

One of the plaques on the Silver Trails gate, showing the acquisition date of the camp.

Another plaque on the Silver Trails gate, showing that it was apparently funded and possibly built by the local Exchange Club in 1952.

I basically grew up at Silver Trails Scout Reservation, 300 acres of mostly old-growth forest in a valley carved out by Silver Creek, with a series of deep ravines cut by smaller streams, all surrounded by a wooded plateau and bluffs overlooking the west side of the Black River, 2 miles west of Jeddo. Silver Trails is a boy’s paradise, especially back in the old summer camp days. After my first summer camp in 1974, I asked my parents to let me stay a second week, which they did, and I remain so thankful even all these years later. From 1978 through 1986, I worked most summers at Silver Trails as a nature instructor. I could write a book about my memories, but I’ll save that for another time. Suffice it to say that I treasure the camp, the natural area, the history, the people, the scouting programs, the ceremonies, and all the great times we had. Every kid should have opportunities like I did at Silver Trails. There’s no good reason why a local camp experience should be denied to our youth, let alone be taken away.

One of the ravines on the north end of Silver Trails.

Despite the great summer camp programs I experienced at Silver Trails as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s, there were ongoing rumors even then that Silver Trails might be shut down and sold. It seemed to start with the County Health Department inspections of the Dining Hall kitchen and the constant upgrades that were necessary. Then, there was talk of consolidation of the council. I sometimes wonder if the discontinuation of the week-long summer camps in the mid 1980’s was just the beginning of a long-running effort. It seems hard to believe that from about 1980 to 1985, the summer camp program went from being such a vital function of the council to not much more than just a few weekend campouts. I still remember, we started Cub Scout day camp in mid to late May, running for 2 to 3 weeks. Then we had “staff week”, a whole week for the staff to prepare the camp for the incoming Boy Scouts. Then, we had 3 to 4 weeks of Boy Scout summer camp. Hundreds of boys spent a week each summer at Silver Trails, and these were almost all local units from Saint Clair and Sanilac Counties. Not only did they learn and have a lot of fun, but they got to know scouts from other units in the council. Like me, they got to see something bigger than their own troop. We made friends and acquaintances across two counties. It felt like an extended family. I don’t know that the benefits of that can be measured.

The nice thing about running summer programs at a local camp is that it provides opportunities for employing local scouts on staff, like me and my friends. Because we were active on this council camp level, we went on to participate even more in the council, and even on regional and national levels. I think this broader experience strengthened my connection with my local unit, Troop 169 in Fort Gratiot, because I saw how far our guys could go if they wanted to. While attending Michigan State University, I was still a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 169, still going on most of the campouts and other activities. Upon moving back to the area, I became an Assistant Scoutmaster and also a member of the Blue Water Council Properties Committee. During this time, I helped to resist an effort by “National” to consolidate the former Blue Water Council with at least one adjacent council. While we supported more cooperation with neighboring councils, we knew that consolidation would mean losing our local identity and more than likely, the eventual sale of our camp, Silver Trails.

There was another failed merger effort in the early 2000’s and then it seemed talk of consolidation was dropped for a long time. It reappeared suddenly in 2010 after a rather clandestine meeting took place in the newly created Great Lakes Council, formed in 2009 by a merger of the Detroit Area Council and Clinton Valley Council. I found out about the renewed effort through a web site,, maintained by a couple of local Michigan scouters, Kirt Manecke and Ken Jacobsen. Working with Ken Jacobsen, I helped to get the word out to scout leaders across Michigan of the upcoming effort to consolidate all 11 Boy Scout councils in Michigan into one big council. This time, the BSA wasn’t messing around with just one council. They were going for the whole state. And they were slick about it this time, not coming from “National” on-high, but twisting it into a process that appeared to be home-grown.  

The consolidation plan was promoted as a means to improve the scouting program through increasing efficiency. But also, somewhat ironically, the plan proposed increasing professional staff, which, in my opinion, is a big part of the Boy Scout’s problem to start with. While this plan may indeed help the program and hopefully, increase membership, the implications for the 16 scout camps across Michigan were clear. Consolidation would result in more targeted use of camps, for example, limiting summer camp programs to just a few camps statewide instead of each council. This meant that the use of some camps would decrease significantly and would lead to closure and probably sales soon after. A more cynical assessment leads to the conclusion that this effort to consolidate was mostly about selling camps right from the beginning, just as it has been in previous consolidation attempts.

In 2011, I inventoried and mapped all Boy Scout camps in Michigan and adjacent Ohio and Indiana where some camps also served Michigan councils. At that time, Michigan and part of northwest Ohio, in the Toledo area, were grouped together as “Area 2” and the consolidation plan would potentially affect all councils in Area 2. I assessed the threat of closure and sale for each camp and sent this information out to all regional land conservancies that might have an interest in protecting these lands. A few responded and were very concerned about potential camp sales. I also contacted Heart of the Lakes, a conservancy support organization, and had some discussion with a representative of Rotary Clubs.

On August 14, 2012, nine scout councils in the Lower Peninsula were consolidated to form the Michigan Crossroads Council. The only Michigan council that was not merged was the Hiawathaland Council, which covered the entire Upper Peninsula, which has since merged with the Bay-Lakes Council of Wisconsin. The old Blue Water Council, covering Saint Clair and Sanilac Counties, is now just a district of the much larger Water and Woods Field Service Council, covering the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula, which is just a sub-council of the Michigan Crossroads Council covering the entire Lower Peninsula. As part of the consolidation, the ownership of all scout camps was transferred to the national Boy Scouts organization.

Not even a month later, on September 10, 2012, came the announcement that three camps would be closed starting in 2013 - Camp Agawam in Lake Orion, Lost Lake Scout Reservation near Clare, and Paul Bunyan Scout Reservation near Rose City. Six other camps, including Silver Trails, were closed for summer camps and restricted only to weekend camping. I modified my camp map and again sent this information out to the regional land conservancies where camps were closed and likely to be sold. Since then, one camp has already been sold, 131-acre Camp Agawam. Thankfully, it was sold to the adjacent Bald Mountain Recreation Area, a 4,637-acre park owned by the State of Michigan. Hopefully, the State isn’t going to sell that off. There is also rumor that Lost Lake Scout Reservation has been up for sale. I attended summer camp at Lost Lake in 1990 with our Troop 169 and had a great time. In this day, I just don’t know how you justify selling-off over 2,000 forested acres in northern Michigan with three lakes adjoining a State Forest when you own it outright and don’t pay property taxes on it. You know that if you ever wanted it or similar land back you’d pay a fortune.

I have to say that Paul Bunyan Scout Reservation is kind of special to me. Long ago when I was a young kid, our family stayed at a cottage on Loon Lake near Rose City, Michigan. Way across the lake and up in the woods we could hear shouting or hooting. My dad said it was the Boy Scouts at a camp across the lake. I wondered what they must be doing running around, shouting in the woods. Surely they were not intimidated by the wilderness, but were in their element. I wanted to be like that. To me, this simple thing was part of the allure and mystique of the Boy Scouts that made me want to be one. Years later, when I finally had a car, I took off for a drive up North, and by chance I ended up at Paul Bunyan Scout Reservation. Knowing I was a scout, the camp ranger was kind enough to let me camp there. I had the camp all to myself for two days and had a very peaceful time.  

When the new Michigan-wide council was formed, one of the rules adopted was an automatic review of camps and consideration of closure if a deficit, no matter how small, is run two years in a row. Well, in 2013, Silver Trails Scout Reservation supposedly ran a deficit of a whopping $5,000. I’m told that everything was good in 2014 but haven’t seen the actual numbers.

One thing is for sure. Silver Trails Scout Reservation and all other camps in Michigan are no longer owned by a local council as they were prior to the creation of the Michigan Crossroads Council. The fates of these camps are no longer local decisions. Despite repeated statements by this planning committee or that to distance themselves from the possibility of camp sales, the BSA process always seems to lead to camp sales these days. 

The new and improved reality is that scouts are no longer making summer camp memories at Silver Trails as we did in the 70’s and 80’s. Instead, they are sent to other camps across Michigan. They won’t miss Silver Trails like our generation would, and so they won’t fight for it. I really want to give BSA the benefit of the doubt. The consolidation was said to be about improving the program in Michigan, and I really hope that works out. But knowing that BSA has already sold or attempted to sell so many camps, and that everything can change any time by some new committee decree, to me, this Michigan reorganization really looks like a drawn-out “divide and conquer” strategy.

Camp alumni groups have been able to organize, fundraise, and rescue several scout camps across the US and Canada. Successes have ranged from working with the scout council to increase camp use and develop new programs, to purchasing all or portions of camps, to ensuring that camps are sold to similar camping organizations or conservation buyers. Perhaps one of the best examples of an alumni group is the Owasippe Staff Association that rescued Owasippe Scout Reservation over near Muskegon, Michigan, the oldest scout camp in the US, from the clutches of an impending sale by the Chicago Area Council around 2005 through 2007. They are still working to ensure that Camp Owasippe remains a valued part of the council program.

A few years ago, I began forming an alumni group for Silver Trails, which I called “9-Tree Fellowship” in honor of the old camp symbol, the Number 9 Tree. I didn’t get too far with it, but created a Facebook group:  We have 8 members, old Silver Trails summer camp staffers and other scouting friends. I would like to set-up a special account dedicated specifically to Silver Trails, either within the Thumb Land Conservancy or as part of the 9-Tree Fellowship if it becomes a non-profit organization. The camp seems stable for now, but you know, we were taught to “Be Prepared”. A special fund could be used to try to purchase all or part of the camp in an emergency. Or, in the meantime, it could be used to try to purchase a conservation easement that would ensure at least a portion of Silver Trails would remain in a natural state and available for continued camping use. In addition, I would like to see 9-Tree Fellowship work with the council to expand and improve the use of Silver Trails. Please contact me if you are interested in being a part of this.