Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Loss Of Open Space No One's Really Talking About...

We seem to be bombarded almost daily with these frightening headlines: State Parks to Close...Irvine's Wild Rivers Water Park to relocate to make way for an apartment complex...LA River projects on hold due to lack of funding.

Yet the most disturbing 'closures' are the places where many of us hold our first memories of childhood exploration in nature: The Summer Camp.

Throughout the country, Girl and Boy Scout Councils, church organizations, private families and civic organizations are doing the once unthinkable: closing their camps and putting the properties up for sale to raise revenue to keep their operations alive. More and more we are seeing large swaths of open space becoming abandoned by long-time property owners and tenants (as is the case of several camps within our National Forest system).

This trend is troubling for a number of reasons:

1. the great likelihood that these parcels will be purchased by those who intend to develop the land
2. the fact that many of these camps have learning-oriented recreational improvements in place that will likely be destroyed
3. the loss of 'one tank trips' to get families into nature during a time of economic turmoil

While this movement is nationwide, the example of one camp: Camp Sugarbush, where I spent much of my childhood as a Girl Scout camper, is illustrative of this sad trend.

Camp Sugarbush embraces almost 200 scenic wooded acres in rural Northeast Ohio and its name connotes the large stand of sugar maple trees growing in the area. This camp is highly improved with a lodge/dining hall, infirmary, heated swimming pool, small canoe lake, archery range, game fields, and an observatory. Overnight camping amenities include cabins, a primitive cabin, covered wagons (yes, you can sleep in them just like the pioneers did!), and perma-tents with cotting and mattresses. The lodge and cabin include flush toilets and hot showers (yay!).  All other units have their own pavilion, latrine, and running water. The camp offers day camping, overnight camping and primitive camping options.

For me, Camp Sugarbush was more than just a place to hang out at during the summer. Here I learned ritual and survival skills that still serve me well today. Among my 'firsts' at Camp Sugarbush: first archery lesson, first primitive camping experience, first canoeing, first campfire singalong, and first leather tanning. I hated the sound of the bugle at 6:30am waking us up and calling us to the flagpole for the morning camp opening ritual but loved making s'mores over the campfire. I hated repelling the nasty mosquitoes buzzing around but loved our hikes in the woods, learning the names of plants and trees, while in search of 'edible' berries. I learned the difference between poison oak and poison ivy. I learned how to watch out for snakes (by the way, this is a skill that applies to human snakes, too). I learned how to catch frogs. I hated latrine duty but learned the connection between human waste and our watershed at a young age. I loved the ride and commaderie on the camp bus and can still smell the hickory smoked campfire air.

A couple months ago, the Girl Scout Council of NE Ohio voted to close Camp Sugarbush and four others, with the plan to sell them to raise funds to keep the organization financially sustainable, while reorganizing camping activities around two 'leadership centers.' But what will the final fate of this and many other camp grounds nationwide mean?

Born of the 'garden movement' at the turn of the 20th Century and nurtured as church groups and youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire, and 4-H were founded and grew, the nature summer camp gave children and families the opportunity to leave the sooty, dirty industrial city where they lived and camp under the stars in nature.  According to the American Camp Association, summer camps serve over 10 million Americans at 12,000 accredited campsites.

Only 10 million? No wonder these open spaces are quickly becoming endangered species. Despite the cries about nature deficient disorder in our children due to urban upbringing, fewer youth than ever are engaging in overnight camping away from home.

Several factors have led to this decline: the rapid urbanization of America where today more than half the population lives in cities, stressed out two-income and single parent families who are struggling just to financially survive, and computer-video game-virtual reality technology that entertains more and more of our children, just to name a few.

And here's the saddest part:  unless you grew up in a camping family or attended camp as a child, you have probably forgotten how to camp and live outdoors.  Anecdotally, I'm always surprised how, when I take visitors down to the Arroyo Seco in very civilized Pasadena, they quake in their shoes when I mention wild critters in the area, especially snakes.

While nature can be enjoyed just for nature's sake through hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, natural camp grounds are critical playgrounds for learning skills of survival and skills of teamwork and leadership. Moreover, since most camp grounds are located on a freshwater river or stream, these natural playgrounds are a key source of watershed education, too

Whether it's state parks, public campgrounds or civic/church owned camp sites, we risk losing some of our most precious low impact recreational open space if we cannot develop new models of joint use, cross-organizational collaboration, and revenue enhancement. And where are the land conservancies? While conservancies focus on ranch, farm, and urban interface properties, I've yet to see an organized effort to acquire and conserve these precious camp lands.

This summer, take your loved ones camping before it's too late. Better yet, bring along a friend or two and introduce them to the joy and wonder of living, for at least a brief time, in nature.


  1. I do believe you are absolutely correct on camping and camp. This summer I'm off to Catalina to camp out with a pack of backpacking chefs in Little Harbor.

  2. You stated the issue well...for more info on the loss of organized camps, check out the following recent article from TPL...


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