Beset by falling enrollment and mounting debt, the Boy Scouts of America are mothballing, returning or selling four of its five regional camps in Western Washington.
In December 2015, Boy Scout leadership voted to close the four camps spanning Federal Way, South Hill, Elma and on the Hood Canal.
Four years later, all of them are closed or in varying states of new ownership, negotiation or limbo.
In their place is come one, come all Camp Thunderbird near Olympia that serves all Scouts in the Pacific Harbors Council of Boy Scouts of America, which includes Pierce, Thurston, Pacific, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties.
The camps were losing $400,000 a year, said Ralph Voelker, CEO of the Pacific Harbors Council. By 2016, the council was $1.2 million in debt.
“Most of our troops weren’t attending our camps,” Voelker said. “They were attending other camps. We’re surrounded by some wonderful Boy Scout camps.”
John Ohlson was one of two council board members who voted against the sales of the camps. He still thinks it was a bad decision.
“You can’t buy this kind of property on the open market and to give it up is a travesty,” Ohlson said.
Camps Hahobas, Curran, Kilworth and Delezenne are each headed in different directions as the Boy Scouts spin them off.
WHY THEY CLOSED
Upkeep of the camps was a financial drain, Voelker said.
“It was better to reinvest in one camp and do it well rather than do five poorly,” Voelker said.
The remaining camp, Thunderbird, near Summit Lake, will mainly be used by youth up to fifth grade and for leadership and volunteer training, he said. Older youth will attend other Scout camps in the state.
The four closed camps weren’t as popular as others, Voelker said. A decade-long slide in membership wasn’t helping.
Nationwide and locally, scouting membership has been on the decline.
The council currently has 8,095 members, down from 9,079 in 2017.
The decline has accelerated recently following a split with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons.
Mormons accounted for 40 percent of area Boy Scouts in 2017, Voelker said.
In December 2017, the Pacific Council saw 965 Mormon youths leave, mostly in the Varsity and Venturing programs for older youth, he said.
It’s the first part of a total separation of the LDS church from the Boy Scouts, which will be complete Jan. 1, 2020. The Mormons are starting a gospel-based program for both boys and girls to replace scouting.
The move came shortly after the Boy Scouts announced it would allow girls among its ranks and be called Scouts BSA. The change is official in February. Girls already are allowed to join Cub Scouts.
Girls will remain segregated from boys in their own gender-specific troops.
“This is not a co-ed program at this age,” Voelker said. “They will have their own leadership structure, their own camps.”
The LDS church also had concerns about the BSA’s decision to allow gay Scout leaders to serve in the organization.
On top of that, the national BSA group might be considering bankruptcy protection, according to reports in the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal. The 108-year-old group has been beset by multiple lawsuits involving sexual abuse.
At nearly 600 acres, Camp Hahobas is by far the largest of the properties being jettisoned.
Located along the eastern shore of Hood Canal, south of Dewatto on the Kitsap Peninsula, it includes two lakes and part of another.
Voelker described it as a rustic camp with restrooms and a shed for dining. It originally had no overland entrance.
“The kids would come to the camp by boat and hike up,” Voelker said.
The camp was losing $150,000 per year, Voelker said.
“We weren’t able to keep up with maintenance,” he said.
The final details of the camp’s complicated sale are being negotiated, according to those involved.
As it stands, the Trust for Public Land will buy 430 acres, said Richard Corff, the Washington director of land conservation for the nonprofit.
“It’s a very exciting project, and we’re excited to be part of it and see so much potential come out of it,” Corff said.
“We had an offer to buy the camp for development, and we chose to go with Trust for Public Land because it fits more into the scouting outdoor code,” Voelker said. “It just felt better for the property.”
The Trust is working on a conservation plan for the property which would include public access, Corff said.
“It is a priority for us to make land accessible to the public,” he said.
The deal includes the Department of Natural Resources. The government agency will buy 264 acres from the Trust and log some of it, according to Corff and David Gordon, assistant manager of transactions with the DNR.
The property is adjacent to other DNR lands, Gordon said.
“It makes it easier for us to maintain the landscape to meet our goals and objectives,” he said. “There are no immediate plans to log it.”
The Boy Scouts have already logged some of the land. Voelker said it represented about 1 percent of the property.
“It was a prescribed cut from our forester to remove diseased trees,” he said. “The net amount we received was not significant and was used to offset some of the expenses we have realized over the years from the property.”
In an earlier version of the deal, the DNR was going to purchase another 62 acres from the Trust to add to the state’s proposed 1,700-acre Dewatto Natural Resources Conservation Area, which would protect five miles of Hood Canal shoreline.
Public reaction to the conservation area caused the DNR to drop that part of the plan, Gordon said.
“We believed that there was widespread support for (the conservation area),” Gordon said. “But, we’ve encountered the opposite of that.”
The conservation area does have its supporters, Gordon said, and the state plans on moving forward with it with more public input.
Like federal wilderness areas, DNR’s conservation areas are not open to logging.
Another partner in the deal, the Great Peninsula Conservancy, will buy 102 acres for conservation purposes from the Trust, Corff and Gordon said.
In addition, the U.S. Navy is acquiring a restrictive easement on the entire purchase.
“The proposed agreement is part of the Navy’s ongoing Readiness and Environmental Protection Partnership efforts on Hood Canal, which focuses on sustaining the Dabob Bay Range Complex and our missions in Hood Canal operating areas,” said Naval Base Kitsap spokesman Jake Chappelle.
Chappelle said he wasn’t able to provide any more details until the transaction was finalized.
The Navy’s Bangor submarine base and its nuclear weapon arsenal are 25 miles to the north.
Voelker said a portion of the property will be retained by the Scouts as a wilderness camp. The section includes part of a lake.
“No matter what we do, Scouts will be able to use the land in the future,” he said.
Gordon said he expects the deal to wrap up by the end of January.
No one involved in the transaction would provide monetary figures.
In 1934, at the height of The Great Depression, Tacoma’s William Kilworth bought 32 acres along the shore of Puget Sound for the “kindred virtues among boys.”
Now 25 acres, the Federal Way camp features an amphitheater, archery range and nearly century-old forest.
Camp Kilworth also has a 1935-era rustic style Rotary Lodge, a building on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Most Endangered Places. Advocates are concerned that the unheated building is decaying.
The camp ceased operations in 2016.
Kilworth stipulated in the original deed that the property would revert back to his family if it wasn’t used as a youth camp.
Today, the family is represented by two trusts: The Florence B. Kilworth Charitable Trust Foundation and the William Kilworth Charitable Foundation.
The Kilworth trusts, with combined assets worth $11.5 million, handed out $500,000 in grants to dozens of Tacoma-based charities in 2017, according to tax records.
“We’ve been working for years to return it back to them,” Voelker said. “It was not an easy decision to return it.”
Robert Casey, an attorney for the trusts, said in an emailed statement to The News Tribune that the two trusts had not yet taken ownership of the property.
“I don’t expect that the trusts will be even considering what to do with the property until they take title from the Boy Scouts,” Casey said.
The handover has been going slowly. Casey made a similar statement to the newspaper in March 2016.
In 2016, Ohlson, other Scout leaders and neighbors of the camp formed a group — the Camp Kilworth Scouting and Alumni Association — to advocate for the continued use of the property as a camp for both Scouts and the community, keeping it in line with Kilworth’s original vision.
The camp is a special place for Ohlson and generations of Scouts.
“I went there when I was a boy,” he said.
Ohlson, 63, has been involved in scouting since he himself was a Scout. The Fox Island resident shepherds several Cub Scout packs on the island.
Ohlson said he sent the trusts’ representatives an email regarding the future of the camp.
“The answer I got back was, we’ll be happy talk to you but only after the transaction has taken place,” Ohlson said.
His advocacy group remains optimistic, he said.
A Boy Scout camp since 1963, Camp Delezenne is leased from the Weyerhaeuser Co.
The camp was decommissioned in May 2017 after Boy Scout management became alarmed about alleged criminal activity at a nearby property.
“We had concerns about the safety of our children,” Voelker said.
Today, camp buildings are boarded up. “Empty Keep Out,” has been spray painted on them.
The grounds are overgrown. Someone has arranged old bus seats around a campfire.
If the camp goes unused for five years, the lease reverts back to Weyerhaeuser, Voelker said.
“(Weyerhaeuser) wishes Scouts could still use it,” Voelker said. ”They’ve been a dear friend to the Boy Scouts and continue to be so.”
Currently, the camp is in what Voelker called a waiting period.
Weyerhaeuser did not return a request for information.
On Dec. 21, about two dozen Scouts gathered at Camp Curran for a Court of Honor ceremony, signifying their next step in the scouting echelon.
The camp is the only one of the four that is still active and has a certain future as a scout camp, albeit an unofficial one.
Camp Curran is just shy of five forested acres at 50th Avenue East and 132nd Street Court East in the Midlands-Summit area. The mostly unimproved camp has a 2,500-square-foot lodge.
It’s used by Boy and Girl Scouts.
“It’s a very quiet little oasis,” said Troop 692 scoutmaster Joe Eaves. “It affords them a place close to home to experience the outdoors.”
The camp was originally given to Boy Scout Troop 92 (later 692) in the 1940s by Thomas Curran.
In the 1970s, the national organization decided an individual troop couldn’t own a camp outright and took possession of it.
Following the Pacific Council’s 2015 decision, the non-profit Camp Curran Community Association was formed in early 2016. Its goal: to keep the camp open and operating for youth.
“By closing it, it would open that building and grounds to homeless people, vandalism and other potential problems,” Eaves said.
The camp was officially deeded to the group in August 2016.
Eaves, who raised his son in Cub Scouts and then Boy Scouts, has spent many an overnight camping trip there since the early 2000s.
“Seeing my son do a lot of scouting there, and his friends, I do have attachment to the property,” Eaves said.
Currently, more than 60 Cub and Boy Scouts use the camp on a weekly basis. Groups from as far as Oregon use the grounds for camping from March to December, Eaves said.
For over a decade, Girl Scouts have used the property for Camp Oh Ah Lay Lay, a day and overnight camp program.
Returning the camp to Troop 692 has been a good decision, Eaves said. The camp is in better shape now than in its BSA days.
“We’ve been blessed to have a lot of community support and volunteer assistance,” Eaves said.
The community association has received grants and replaced the lodge’s roof and heating system.