Iowa Girl Scouts and less of the Great Outdoors

Camp Tahigwa put up for sale

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Don’t girls like to camp anymore?

Mixed reactions have met the recent announcement by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois of their intention to sell Camp Tahigwa in Dorchester, Allamakee County — 315 acres of wooded hills and prairies straddling one of the state’s finest trout streams.

Nature lover John Beard of Decorah, who hikes and fishes for trout within the camp, said he was relieved to learn the camp will be sold on the condition that it be maintained in its natural state for public use.

Nature lover Brecka Putnam of Decorah, a volunteer counselor at the camp for the past six years, said she, too, is happy it won’t be sold to developers, but sad that it will no longer offer Scout programs to the girls.

“It’s still a tremendous loss not to have Girl Scout programs at the camp,” said Putnam, a member of Friends of Camp Tahigwa, which has urged that the camp remain open.

In an era in which people are losing contact with nature, Camp Tahigwa “provides a rustic, natural, technology-free experience,” Putnam said.

But contrary to opinions held by many Scout leaders, Putnam said she does not believe that today’s girls are less inclined than their mothers to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors.

Despite Girl Scout statistics showing declining usage at Tahigwa, Putnam said the Scouts who camp there thoroughly enjoy their experience.

“If we expose them to it, they love it, and I don’t think they miss their phones,” Putnam said.

Diane Nelson, president of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois, agrees that girls still love the outdoors. “It’s an important part of our program and always will be,” she said.

But declining use at some of the camps and increasing maintenance costs have forced the organization’s board of directors to make adjustments, she said.

Those adjustments include selling Tahigwa and converting the former Camp Conestoga into a 21st-century camp with air-conditioning, microwaves and Wi-Fi.

Connestoga — in Scott County, much closer to the council’s demographic center — has been renamed Camp Liberty and is in the midst of a $3.6 million upgrade, according to Nelson.

On Thursday Camp Liberty unveiled a new activity center that has been underwritten by a $200,000 grant from Hy-Vee and that is intended to help Scouts learn the value of healthy choices, staying physically active and taking care of the environment.

Camp Tahigwa is part of a national trend in which many other scout camps across the nation have closed or been sold in recent years as leaders adjust to rising costs and the changing preferences of scouts.

The not-for-profit group owns four camps in Eastern Iowa with a combined value of several million dollars. An original plan to close them all met stiff resistance and a lawsuit, which may have influenced council leadership to conduct usage surveys of its properties.

Those surveys show that Tahigwa is the least used of the four camps, Nelson said.

Use of Camp Liberty has increased from 800 campers last year to more 1,400 so far this year, she said.

Camp Little Cloud near Dubuque will continue to be used and maintained while a usage evaluation proceeds, Nelson said.

Camp L-Kee-Ta near Burlington has shown a slight increase in use, according to Nelson. The board, she said, has agreed to sell some parcels that are not central to the organization’s mission.

In a statement issued last month, the organization said its property committee recommends selling Tahigwa “in its entirety to an entity with the condition that the land be maintained as a natural space in perpetuity for public use.”

The statement said the Scouts’ board of directors will review and vote on the recommendation at its meeting Thursday.

The property committee also recommended as a first option sending an exploratory letter to the Department of Natural Resources, the conservation boards of Fayette, Winneshiek, Clayton and Allamakee counties and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which has been instrumental in brokering similar property transfers to public entities.

Foundation President Joe McGovern said the Girl Scouts are to be complimented for their desire to protect the property in its natural condition and for seeking input in doing so.

McGovern said he’s optimistic that the Girl Scouts and their partners can formulate a plan for the property that may even include scout camping opportunities.

“They came to us to see if we are interested, and of course we are,” said Mike Steuck, the DNR’s northeast Iowa fisheries supervisor. “It’s a great resource with awesome uplands, several prairies and a mile of Bear Creek, one of the state’s top trout streams, flowing through it.”

“I would hate to see it sold off to the private sector, subdivided and covered with mansions,” said Jim Janett, director of the Allamakee County Conservation Department.

“The Winneshiek County Conservation Board supports keeping Camp Tahigwa an educational facility, a pristine outdoor classroom and a public resource,” said Barbara Schroeder, the board’s executive director.

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