Campers enjoying tubing along Bear Creek at Camp Tahigwa near Dorchester. Built in the late 1960s, the camp has been providing summer fun for Girl Scouts and their families for 46 years. (Submittted photo)
This summer could be the last opportunity for area youth and volunteers to attend Camp Tahigwa near Dorchester.
Last week, the volunteer property committee for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois Council recommended the sale of the four camps owned by the Council: Camp Tahigwa in Allamakee County, Camp Conestoga in Scott County, Camp Little Cloud in Dubuque County and Camp L-Kee-Ta in Des Moines County.
The Council's board is expected to vote on the matter at its meeting March 28.
Camp "Tahigwa" a Native American word which means "at peace," opened in 1967, following the purchase of 315 acres by the Conestoga Council of Girl Scouts.
"None of us like to face this," said Diane Nelson, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.
Nelson said the volunteer property committee has been compiling data and research on the viability of the camps for the last five years.
"Some of the information they've discovered is that although the Girl Scouts have seen five years of consecutive growth, the camping component has experienced five years of decline," she said.
At last week's meeting, the volunteer property committee released five factors used in developing its recommendation:
None of the four current facilities meets the needs of the Council's increasing membership of almost 20,000 girls and 5,000 adult members
Less than 10 percent of the membership utilizes the camp facilities
To meet the needs of today's members will require a total redesign of property infrastructure
Research has shown that girls are more interested in adventure and travel opportunities than the rustic experiences the camps were designed for
The declining income, resulting from substantially lower attendance, could not keep up with operating costs.
"After careful deliberation and study, the Council property committee, charged with researching the need and usage - and the financial viability of camps like Tahigwa - has decided further investment in the properties is not a responsible use of the Council's financial resources," said Mary Lagerblade, chair of the Board of Directors.
Nelson said, "our girls have continued to vote with their participation ... even with our steady growth in membership, there has been an ongoing decline in the number of girls using our camp properties despite our best efforts to change this. Meanwhile, the need for improvements to the camps has escalated," she said.
Nelson said if the vote passes March 28, "the sale of the properties would open the door for Girl Scouting to respond to current trends and needs of girls in our Council and we're excited about exploring the development of a new outdoor learning center which would meet the needs of our current Girl Scout membership."
JoAn Stevenson, who has lived in Decorah for about two years, said she first discovered the beauty of Northeast Iowa when she accompanied some family members to a volunteer weekend at Camp Tahigwa. Annual volunteer weekends help the camp save money, by calling on friends of the camp to do spring cleanup prior to camping season.
"Since then, the volunteer weekend in May became something to look forward to each year for our family. Would we stay in Tree Houses or Polly's Place? Would it be a good year to hunt morels? Would we hear coyotes at night? Would the weather hold out for the traditional hayride and bonfire with s'mores?" she recalled.
"The camp is breathtakingly beautiful - Ranger Gene, his staff and volunteers have done an amazing job throughout the years of keeping this property clean, improved, maintained and well-cared for."
Stevenson was so taken with the area, when her son and his family were thinking of relocating from California to Iowa, she steered him toward the Northeast corner.
"I said I know a great place for you to consider," she said.
Her son and his family now live here and a few years ago, Stevenson started taking her grandsons to volunteer weekend.
"We have formed and rekindled friendships with other volunteers who come from miles around each year. But that doesn't matter nearly as much as all the girls who have had the opportunity to spend invaluable time at the camp. I sadly think of all the girls who might never have that same amazing opportunity," she said.
Brecka Putnam, a 2000 graduate of Decorah High School who lives in the Twin Cities, has been attending Camp Tahigwa for the past 25 years.
"First, I was a camper, then a counselor and a volunteer. I also was camp director for two years," she said.
"I think it's sad for so many reasons, and I hope the Board will consider keeping the camps open," said Putnam, who works as an "Ultimate Hike" manager for a children's cancer research organization.
Through her work, Putnam helps fund-raising participants hike 20 to 30 miles a day through some of the "most challenging trails in the country," she said.
"I attribute everything I have achieved to what I learned at Camp Tahigwa ... the outdoor skills, confidence, independence, creativity and imagination," said Putnam.
"One of the things that struck me, hearing all this information, is that our children's life expectancy is less than ours, due to child obesity. That statistic is staggering. With all that going on, I can't believe the right choice is to close this great venue for girls to get outside and move," she added.
Putnam said she is puzzled by the property committee's findings about camp attendance because Camp Tahigwa has not offered overnight, residential camping for two years.
"My family was turned away from Me and My Pal weekend. I had even offered to volunteer as a counselor so they could take on more people and was told they had a significant waiting list. It seems strange that I was turned away from an opportunity to bring more people to camp," she said.
Putnam added although she supports the Girl Scouts' other activities 100 percent, she still thinks camp is an important learning opportunity for girls.
"Everything I learned was at a Girl Scout camp, not at a Girl Scout meeting," she said.
Nelson said she finds the possibility of closing the camps "extremely sad."
"Camp Tahigwa is such a beautiful camp. Gene (Averhoff) has done a great job. This closing is no reflection on the work that has been done there over the years, it's just not something girls are interested in. Many of the girls of today want more modern conveniences. We've put a lot of time and energy into getting them (girls) there, including increased marketing, sending girls personal letters and having financial assistance available. We can't make the girls do something they don't want to do," she said.
Nelson added the Council's camp struggle is not unique.
"There are many other Girl Scout, Boy Scout and YMCA groups faced with the same decisions," she said.
"There was a big decline after 9/11, when parents started worrying about safety issues."
Nelson emphasized the official vote on the matter will not take place until March 26.
"If people want to express their concerns, ideas or thoughts, they can email Property@GirlScoutsToday.org. We're committed to making sure the voting members of the Board see everyone's ideas and requests," she said.
She also reminded Scouts and parents they can register for this summer's session at Camp Tahigwa at www.GirlScoutsToday.org.
"Whether this recommendation passes or not, Girl Scouts are committed to having outdoor programs for our girls. We will partner with other nonprofits, community and state parks. We're still committed to helping our girls explore the great outdoors," she said.