New Life for Old Camps–Land&People

The distant shouts of boys and the smell of woodsmoke drift up the steep, wooded slope above Lake Vreeland. This November Saturday is cloudless and unseasonably warm, perfect for a “pioneering” event at Camp Glen Gray in the New Jersey Highlands. Founded in 1917 as a Boy Scout camp, Camp Glen Gray today is preserved as a county park, open to scouts and other organized youth groups, families, and groups of friends who want to spend a weekend in the great outdoors. More than 100 Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Brownies are here to sleep out in the woods and learn outdoor skills, such as making beef stew and peach cobbler in a Dutch oven over an open fire.

From near the top of the slope, John Hartinger surveys the lake, sparkling in the sun and surrounded by the russet hills of late fall. Hartinger, a boyish-looking marketing consultant in his early fifties, first camped here in October 1996 with the Cub Scout troop of his oldest son, Dan. Today, Hartinger heads Friends of Glen Gray (FOGG), a volunteer group that helped save the camp when it was threatened with development in 2000 and that now operates the camp under a management agreement with the county. “It’s easy to see how developers could have come up here and turned it into mini-estates,” he says. “All of this would have been gone.”

Hiking briskly through five inches of fallen leaves, Hartinger leads the way to a lookout where wild mountains stretch out to the east and south. He points out the blue ghost of a city far in the distance—the Manhattan skyline. “You forget you’re three miles from the interstate, in the most densely populated state in the country,” he says. “Everyone talks about the spirit of Glen Gray. When I heard old-timers say that for the first time I thought it was quaint. The more you visit up here, the more you realize there is a special kind of magic that takes place.”

The local scout council’s 2000 decision to sell the camp sent shock waves through the local scouting community and the camp’s dedicated corps of volunteers, prompting them to organize FOGG. For its part, Bergen County also sought to preserve the 750-acre property because it lies within 13,000 nearly contiguous acres of protected watershed and wilderness lands. Using funds from the county, New Jersey’s Green Acres program, charitable foundations, and private donors, The Trust for Public Land acquired the camp for the county in 2002. “It truly was a three-way win,” says Hartinger. “The county and state preserved environmentally sensitive land. The scouts were able to monetize an asset. And a group of loyal volunteers found a structure and a means to keep the camp open.”

Camps under Pressure

The sale of Camp Glen Gray—prompted by the consolidation of several local Boy Scout councils—is an increasingly common story these days. Across the country, traditional camping organizations and private, for-profit camps are facing financial pressures, declining enrollments, demographic shifts, and the need to modernize facilities and programs. As a result, camps that have operated for a half century or more are going on the market. A camp may be the last large natural area in a rapidly growing suburb or, like Camp Glen Gray, a key environmental, recreational, or historic property within a larger conserved landscape. Faced with losing these places forever, government officials, concerned citizens, and especially former campers are turning to conservation solutions.

“We are definitely seeing this more and more,” says Gregory Copeland, an Ohio-based landscape architect who is helping local Girl Scout councils determine the future of camps after a sweeping national realignment of councils completed in 2009. “There isn’t anyone we’ve worked with who wouldn’t see it as a win-win to have a camp preserved as open space rather than development.”

The American camping movement began in the mid-19th century in response to the nation’s increasing urbanization. New city dwellers worried about future generations being raised away from the farm and cooped up indoors all summer. Youth camping gained momentum with the founding of organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts of America, Camp Fire Girls (now Camp Fire USA), and Girl Scouts of the USA around the turn of the 20th century. These groups acquired land and built rustic outposts where young people were encouraged to develop sound values, responsibility, and leadership skills by living, exploring, and learning in a safe, natural setting.

Camping is still very much a part of scouting and other youth-development organizations. But a drop in participation or the need for funds has led many groups to consolidate and reevaluate camp holdings and programs. For example, the need to raise money has led the Greater New York Councils of Boy Scouts of America to consider selling all or part of its 143-acre Pouch Camp in the heart of the protected Staten Island Greenbelt—a rare and important New York City natural space. The recent Girl Scouts reorganization reduced the total number of councils nationwide from more than 300 to 112. Some of the new councils ended up with ten or more major camp properties, many of which need costly upgrades to meet safety and environmental codes. Councils have been evaluating their property holdings and are beginning to close and sell camps. According to Copeland, a significant percentage of some 600 Girl Scout camps around the country are likely to close.

In other cases, an older camp that no longer meets an organization’s needs or demographics may be sold to fund the creation of new programs. In greater Charlotte, North Carolina, the Girl Scouts’ Hornets’ Nest Council has seen its membership explode as the region’s population rises. So that it can serve more girls and provide a better camping experience, the council is selling three small camps now surrounded by houses and roads to fund a new, 700-acre outdoor education center in a remote mountain setting.

Finding a Conservation Solution

When groups do need to close camps, it is natural for them to turn to a conservation solution when possible, says Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association (ACA), the national organization of camp professionals. “The preservation of land is part of our value system,” says Smith, noting that half of ACA’s nearly 1,600 affiliate resident camps and 40 percent of its 1,000 affiliate day camps have conserved land for one reason or another. A camp may conserve land to create a buffer from future development, protect campsites for trips, or, in the case of for-profit camps, gain tax benefits.

One popular means of doing this is to sell a conservation easement on camp land, which can prevent development and protect a land’s environmental value while providing the money a camp needs to keep operating or achieve financial stability. In central Minnesota, TPL helped Presbyterian Clearwater Forest—a camp and conference center—secure its future this way. This 1,000-acre camp has more 3.5 miles of shoreline on Clearwater Lake and serves youth and adults from presbyteries in three states. A few years back, financial constraints forced the camp’s board of directors to consider selling a 148-acre parcel across the lake from the camp—an exceptionally valuable property in a rapidly developing vacation region, but one that was also crucial to local water quality and wildlife habitat. Because “the camp’s mission is being good stewards of creation,” says camp director David Jeremiason, the board wrestled with the ethical issues the sale would raise.

In 2004, the camp, with the help of TPL, sold a conservation easement on the parcel, to be held by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as an aquatic management area. The camp retained ownership of the land—now open to the public for fishing, wildlife watching, and hiking on a two-mile loop built by camp volunteers—but development is restricted. “Since its inception in 1954, the camp has always been committed to preserving that shoreline of the lake,” says Jeremiason. “That’s what we ended up doing on that exact property we wanted to preserve. And we actually got compensated for it.”

Former Campers to the Rescue

Sometimes, as at New Jersey’s Camp Glen Gray, the persistence of former campers can help preserve a muchloved camp. In 2008, Camp Ojiketa, an 80-year-old Camp Fire USA camp in Chisago City near St. Paul, Minnesota, became a regional park through the efforts of three generations of women who had spent time there as girls. Situated on the shores of Green Lake, the 70-acre camp included 3,100 feet of lakeshore, a natural bay, a high-quality marsh, and an oak forest. As early as 2001, Chisago City had identified the land for preservation. But when the Camp Fire USA Minnesota Council decided to sell, the small city was unable to round up funding. “We were devastated when we heard it was going to be sold for development,” recalls Judy Montgomery, a former camper and retired veterinarian. “We were all tied to a place that gave us a really good start in life.” With emails flying back and forth, former campers from around Minnesota and as far away as Hawai‘i organized the Ojiketa Preservation Society and began meeting with city and county officials, residents, and TPL staff to see if anything could be done.

As discussions with developers continued, the Ojiketa Preservation Society kept the idea of conservation alive. “I spent at least two hours a day, seven days a week, at my computer writing letters to legislators, to other people, to conservation groups,” says Montgomery, “and I was not alone.”

In 2007, after a developer’s plan for a hotel and resort fell through because of the weakening economy, “we were able to convince the council to give conservation a chance,” says TPL senior project manager Bob McGillivray. He negotiated a price and worked with society members to pull together a funding package, which included state and local funds along with private contributions. (Partial funding for both the Camp Ojiketa and Clearwater Forest acquisitions was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.)

After purchasing the land for $3.6 million, Chisago City began to renovate the camp’s buildings and to host cultural, educational, and recreational events. Members of the Ojiketa Preservation Society have stayed involved to preserve the legacy of the camp at a history center established in the park.

“The difference between trying to preserve any piece of land that has conservation value and a former camp is that the camp has alumni who care about the property and can help offset the price by making contributions,” observes Terrence Nolan, the TPL senior project manager who negotiated the Camp Glen Gray sale.

In St. Tammany Parish north of New Orleans, alumni of Camp Salmen, a former regional Boy Scout camp, donated funding to help create a nature park there after TPL had helped the parish acquire the land in 2004 with key funding from the federal Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. Located on a quintessential Southern bayou, the camp had been closed for several decades. Still, former campers and staff felt such a strong connection to the place that they gave money to help restore buildings and build interpretive trails. The parish opened the park to the public in 2010, with a new open-air pavilion on the site of the former camp dining hall. Plans call for restoring the historic camp lodge as a museum.

At New Jersey’s Camp Glen Gray, former campers and counselors and local scout leaders in FOGG, together with the camp’s traditional honor society of volunteers known as the Old Guard of Glen Gray, raised nearly a half-million dollars and came up with a plan to continue operations. With the exception of a paid caretaker and a part-time administrator, the camp is entirely run by volunteers, who do everything from organizing and supervising events to fixing cabin roofs and hauling docks out of the lake for the winter. Through their efforts, generations to come will have the chance to swim in the lake, camp out under the stars, and tell ghost stories around a campfire deep in the woods.

Back at the November pioneering event, Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops take turns building a bridge by lashing together logs, using knots they learned earlier in the day. Already they are forming memories that will tie them to the camp. To FOGG’s John Hartinger, this is a good sign for the future of 95-year-old Camp Glen Gray. “Group by group, person by person,” he says, “we’re building a constituency to protect this place.”

Anne Schwartz is a New York City–based freelance writer specializing in parks and the environment and a regular columnist for Her story on New York City community gardens appeared in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Land&People.