For almost 40 years Joe Sener has been trekking to the Owasippe Scout Reservation in western Michigan to camp, fish, hike, and shoot at targets. And for the last few months he's been fighting leaders of the Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts who want to sell the camp. "To me it's unbelievable that anyone would even consider selling Owasippe," says Sener, a 50-year-old corporate vice president with Baxter International who lives in the far western suburbs. "There are just some things that should never be put up for sale."
Owasippe isn't so much a camp as sacred ground to the thousands of scouts who've spent time there over the years. Nestled in the woods of Blue Lake Township--about 500 miles from Chicago, just east of Whitehall and north of Montague--it's a sanctuary untouched by modern development. There are no fast-food joints, no malls, no major highways anywhere near it--just 5,000 acres of virgin pine and rivers and creeks. According to Sener, about 1,000 species of plants and animals, 19 of them endangered, live there.
The camp opened in 1911. "It's the oldest continuously operating camp in the country," says Sener. "A lot of the property was originally owned by the Chicago Tribune company. It was logged in the 1800s to rebuild Chicago after the great fire."
The Chicago Area Council--the local affiliate of the national organization--steadily scooped up chunks of the land over the last century. "Years ago the Tribune would give away a plot of property for the price of a subscription to the paper," says Sener. "Eventually a lot of those lots became lost in people's estates. We got a lot of that land from the delinquent tax rolls. For years we had a guy up there--Glen Roberts is his name--who'd go to the tax sales, and we accumulated the property."
Sener first visited the camp in 1964, when he was an 11-year-old kid from the southwest side. "I can't really describe the beauty of Owasippe for a kid like me," he says. "It's more than the smell of the pines. It's walking through the woods and watching the eagles soar overhead. It's staying up at night and seeing the stars--thousands of stars. As a kid from the city I'd never even seen the stars. I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. You take a Chicago kid, a working-class urban kid, and give him a chance to experience the outdoors--I mean, the real outdoors. Well, you're giving him a chance to learn a whole lot about himself as well as about nature."
When Sener was a scout Owasippe drew more than 10,000 kids a summer from all over the midwest. "It's traditional scouting," says William Finkler, a scoutmaster for a troop affiliated with Saint Andrew's, at Addison and Paulina. "Kids can get merit badges in, oh, let's see, rowing, astronomy, photography, environmental science--there's probably something like 36 different merit badges. You got kids who never fished. They learn to bait the pole and catch the fish and fillet the fish and cook it. They learn to canoe--there must be 500 canoes up there. They learn to ride horses. We do a wonderful horseback camp where we go on an overnight riding trip. You saddle up the horse, ride, and then take the saddle off and wipe them down and feed them hay and then camp out. The next morning you ride back. The branches are slapping the kids in the faces as they ride--the kids have never seen anything like it."
Most of the camp's counselors and staff are former campers. "There's a continuity with Owasippe," says Sener. "You never really leave it--or Owasippe never really leaves you."
Sener went to Owasippe throughout grammar school. In high school he was a counselor there, then he became a scoutmaster. He still spends several weeks a summer there. "I've seen it change over the years," he says. The biggest change was that fewer boys joined the scouts. "They have many more things going on. I suppose it's good for the kids, but it's not so great for the scouts."
"We used to have 3,000 campers a week at Owasippe," says Jim Stone, scout executive for the Chicago Area Council. "Now we have about 3,000 campers a summer."
Over the past few years the Boy Scouts have also suffered because the national organization has refused to accept gays. In protest, foundations and corporate philanthropies have started withholding contributions, and churches and schools have dropped their scouting programs.
"I love the Boy Scouts," says Sener. "In some ways I think the worst thing that happened to the group is that we won that lawsuit enabling us to keep out gays. I care for my kids--I want them to be in a loving relationship. I know scouts who are gay. It's not an issue to me. They are great people, great scouts. The whole issue of sexuality is something that shouldn't have even come up."
With fewer boys joining, says John Hosty, a scoutmaster from the southwest side, scout councils across the country have found themselves "land rich but cash poor and scrambling to pay their expenses. It's not just here in Chicago. Other councils are also thinking about selling their assets to raise cash for basic expenses."
In 1981 the Chicago council sold off several parcels of land on the fringes of the camp. But developers built luxury homes on the land, which raised the assessed value of the camp and therefore its property taxes. The council wound up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxes.
By the summer of 2002 members of the council's property committee had decided they needed to sell the camp.
Sener, a member of the council, got wind of the proposed sale before the committee announced it to the larger scouting community. He says that council leaders like Stone and president Lewis Greenblatt were reluctant to go public with the plan because they knew it would create a storm of protest. "I met with Stone and others over breakfast on September 11, of all days," he says. "They said, 'We have decided to sell the camp, and we want you to help us sell the idea to the other scouts.' My first reaction was 'Are you on drugs?' I mean, why would you sell your strongest asset? Why would you sell your land? The last I looked they weren't making any more of it. They said they needed the money. I said, 'I think your logic is flawed, your conclusions are faulty, and your approach is inappropriate.'"
Within a few weeks Sener and several other volunteers--including Hosty, Chauncey Niziol, Ron Derby, and Jim Schlichting--had launched a campaign to save the camp. One of the first things they did was to travel to Montague, Michigan, to meet with local leaders. "We met with all the movers and shakers up there--mayors, state senators, business leaders," says Sener. "We put them in a van and drove them around the camp to show them how valuable it was. Their immediate reaction was, what can we do to help you keep this?"
The residents around the camp oppose the sale for the same reasons people generally oppose sprawl--it will increase traffic, noise, and property taxes. "Selling and developing that camp would change the infrastructure up here pretty radically," says Don Studaven, supervisor of Blue Lake Township. "Right now it's pristine woods. But if they sell it they'll have to build in roads and sewers and just disrupt everyone's life."
Studaven was born and raised in Chicago, and he worked for the Chicago Area Council for more than 30 years. In 1996 he retired, and he and his wife moved to Blue Lake Township. In 2000 he was elected supervisor. "I was the property director at Owasippe for several years," he says. "I know how beautiful that camp is."
Last October, Sener went before the council, pleading for time to raise money to buy Owasippe and turn it into a privately held camping facility. The council voted to give him that time, and Stone says most council members hope he succeeds. "Most people want to save the camp," he says.
No one knows for sure how much it would bring if it were sold, and Sener says that the housing market in this area of Michigan is currently soft. And last year, as part of a long-term plan to reduce sprawl, the township board rezoned the camp from residential to recreational, making it less valuable to developers. (The property taxes on it have also dropped, to $56,000 a year.)
Sener and his allies are now trying to get national support for their save-the-camp campaign. Derby puts together a newsletter, "Vibrations," and runs a Web site (www.owasippe.com), which he uses to update supporters on the issue. Sener, Schlichting, and Niziol have formed a not-for-profit organization, the Owasippe Outdoor Education Foundation, to raise money to buy the camp. If they succeed they hope to make the camp available not only to Boy Scouts but to other organizations. And even if the camp never brought in as many campers as it once did, Sener believes it could make money. He says a portion of the camp can be turned into a year-round conference center. "Owasippe would be an amazing corporate conference center--the demand would be huge," he says. "We'd be booked for months. We could use the money we raise from the conference center to fund other activities."
Sener is clear that gays would be welcome at the new camp. "Our goal is to turn this into an outdoor university for the youth of America," he says. "There would be no exclusionary rules. This is for everybody."
Sener and his allies will need to raise about $12 million to buy the camp from the Boy Scouts. "They want to sell it--well, we want to buy it," he says. "But I'd like to put a conservation easement over the whole property so it could never be developed, so it would remain what it is long after we are gone. There are so many things you could do with that land. You could run a freshwater-studies program with a university. I'm talking to donors. This is like a second job for a lot of us. But we have no choice. Owasippe did so much for us, we have an obligation to give something back."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Jeff Juscak.