For South Sound Boy Scouts, these are not happy times.
Membership in Pacific Harbors Council troops has dropped nearly 40 percent over the last decade, making it hard to pay the costs associated with maintaining the council’s five camps. When scouts aren’t filling up camps, not enough revenue is generated to keep the buildings and property in good, safe condition. The council says it has been losing about $200,000 a year.
Now the council has announced it is closing four camps: Kilworth in Federal Way, Curran in East Pierce County, Hahobas on Hood Canal and Delezenne in Elma. The plan is to focus resources on the most centrally located, most accessible property, the 200-acre Camp Thunderbird on Lake Summit near Olympia. But that has scouts in communities whose camps are closing feeling an understandable sense of loss.
Sadly, financial sustainability of camps is not a problem limited to this region. A cursory online search finds scout camps closing in many parts of the country over the past several months – including ones in upstate New York, Tidewater Virginia, South Florida, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The reason is almost always the same as here: not enough campers to warrant keeping camps open.
It’s too simplistic to say that the Boy Scouts are losing members because of recent controversy over allowing gay scouts and troop leaders. The Girl Scouts, who have not experienced that controversy, are also seeing declines – and associated camp closures.
This has been brewing a long time. It’s sad; we don’t want to be closing camps.
Pacific Harbors Council Scout Executive Ralph Voelker
It’s more likely that what’s hurting membership is the fact that kids have a lot of choices today, everything from after-school activities and league sports to sitting in front of big-screen TVs playing video games. (We didn’t say all their choices were good ones.)
Pacific Harbors Council Scout Executive Ralph Voelker believes that a new way of distributing information through the schools is also hurting scout membership. School districts including Tacoma and Federal Way have gone over to using Peachjar software to deliver flyers electronically to parents in their newsletters. Organizations pay a fee for that service, but Voelker says it isn’t working well for the Boy Scouts.
Some critics of the camp closures say they were blindsided by the announcement, but Voelker says that shouldn’t be the case. In a phone interview Tuesday, he said hundreds were invited to a series of meetings on the topic, but only a few people attended.
“This has been brewing a long time,” he says. “It’s sad; we don’t want to be closing camps.”
The council has also heard criticism about logging that has taken place at a couple of the camps. Voelker says that has been to remove older or diseased trees that might be dangerous and to pay some debts.
Scout supporters in Federal Way and East Pierce County are exploring ways to keep the camps in their communities open. Their best bet would probably be to partner with other organizations, but they have to recognize the challenges of operating and maintaining a camp over the long haul. If an organization like the Boy Scouts got priced out, smaller local groups are likely to find it a difficult task, too.