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.
“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.”