© 2021 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

As Rustic Camps Struggle, Girl Scouts Look at Modernizing Camping

Officials with Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois are voting on whether to downsize four of their Girl Scout camps. The proposal is a step back from an earlier plan, to sell all four camps entirely. Girl Scouts officials say today's girls want a more modern camping experience.

There are certain traditions that are essential to being a Girl Scout: reciting the Girl Scout Pledge, selling cookies, and – for many girls over many decades – going to summer camp.

But today, only about one in 10 Girl Scouts in the region serving eastern Iowa and western Illinois are going to camp, says spokeswoman Shelly Wells-Cain. She says the rustic camps are losing more than $500,000 a year.

“We certainly have a group of girls that still love that, and leaders who love that,” she says. “I think many of our leaders today aren’t so impressed by using outdoor facilities, and they prefer maybe real beds as opposed to tents.”

Originally, the Girl Scouts’ regional leadership proposed selling all four camps in eastern Iowa. But a campaign by current and former scouts to save the camps derailed that idea. The new plan calls for selling some of the land at each of the four sites, and renovating a camp near the Quad Cities as a more comfortable, tech-friendly facility for girls across the region.

“Technology is a big piece. Indoor plumbing is a big piece," Wells-Cain says. “We know more girls have allergies today for whatever reasons, so air conditioning can be important.”

Advocates for the camps say the new plan is an improvement, but they’re still not happy.   Mona Woodward is a former scout, and the leader of her daughter’s troop in Dubuque. She says declining camp attendance isn’t about a lack of interest – it’s the economy...

“The last five years – encompassing the recession that has been our largest economic downturn since the Great Depression – it’s like taking the worst case scenario or the perfect storm and saying, ‘See, it’s really bad right now,’” Woodward says.

She points to middle-school girls in the troop she leads, including her daughter Lexi, who say they love to camp.

Across the country, scouting groups from New York to Oregon facing similar pressures have also proposed camp closures.

Ken Jacobsen is a former Boy Scout from the Detroit area. He runs the website savecamps.org, and says scouting organizations are in too much of a rush to close traditional camps.

“I think when you go out and you do a study and say, ‘Would you like flush toilets? Would you like a nicer cabin to stay in?’ the Girl Scouts are going to say, “Yeah, we’d love to,’” Jacobsen says. “But I think if they said, ‘Would you like us to sell our camps so that we could buy another camp and maybe have toilets and stuff like that?’ they’d say, ‘No, we don’t want you to sell the camps.’”

The move away from rustic camping may be a sign of the times. A 2007 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented what it described as “a fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation,” evidenced in particular by a decline in visits to national parks. 

Co-author Patricia Zaradic, of the Red Rock Institute in Pennsylvania, says spending time in nature helps children develop both physically and emotionally – but adults often aren’t doing enough to push kids outside.

“It’s more necessary than ever to create structures that allow our kids to spend that time out in the woods, out camping, out experiencing that nature environment,” she says, “because they’re just not getting it naturally in their week-to-week life.”

Connecting girls with nature is still part of the Girl Scouts’ philosophy, says Wells-Cain. But she says the world has changed since the organization was founded, and the Girl Scouts also have to change to prepare girls to be future leaders.

“Maybe it was important to know how to cook over an open fire, maybe it was important to know how to catch a runaway horse,” she says with a laugh. “How to tie knots – those things might have been really important.

“And we’re not saying that they’re not; we’re just saying 100 years later, there are many new areas of importance.”

Summer camp is just around the corner… and many families are signing up now. But Girl Scouts officials say despite a stepped-up marketing campaign, this year’s numbers are down, again.