By Molly Priddy, 1-01-13
||Caption: Signs point the way at Camp Westana, located on Lower Stillwater Lake north of Whitefish. | Courtesy Photo
A group of local troop leaders, parents and past and present Girl Scouts are in the midst of trying to raise enough money to save Camp Westana, located on Lower Stillwater Lake north of Whitefish.
The camp, which is on leased state land has been in use for decades, was reappraised in 2009, and the new appraisal raised the annual payments for the Girl Scouts significantly.
Instead of paying $5,000 annually, the group may have to pay as high as $25,000 per year. Becky Johnson-Opalka, a troop leader, said that increase isn’t feasible for the group.
When approached by the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming about the increase, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation granted a one-year lease extension for the current price; this extension expires in March 2013.
With the present situation, Johnson-Opalka said the options are to either forfeit the camp or raise $500,000 to purchase the easement. But one of the biggest hurdles will be raising enough money in time to convince the state Girl Scouts council to keep pursuing options to save the camp.
According to a Dec. 10 letter from the state organization, the council will send a notice of lease termination to the DNRC on Jan. 15. Johnson-Opalka believes that if her group can raise enough money and public sentiment for saving the camp, the state council might give them more time to raise the half-million dollars.
“We are just in full ask-for-donations mode,” Johnson-Opalka said.
Another hurdle is that a public entity must hold the permanent easement for the Girl Scouts, and Johnson-Opalka said she is currently in discussion with Montana State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service to do so.
Montana State Parks Administrator Chas Van Genderen acknowledged the conversations with the Girl Scouts, but noted that a commitment is still far off.
“The Girl Scouts have approached us about holding their permanent easement at Camp Westana, should they be able to raise the funds needed. We’ve asked for their request in writing. We’re a long way from any commitment at this time,” Van Genderen said in a prepared statement.
“Let us be clear, our interest in potentially holding this permanent easement would only be considered because it would not add any cost or responsibility to the state park system, as our resources are stretched. We are willing to take a look at this because they need someone to step forward and we are great supporters of recreation opportunities for youth.”
Ideally, the Girl Scouts could find a few donors willing to make large donations to help save the camp, Johnson-Opalka said, but it is also important to get donations from the community at large as well.
For her, it’s about saving a place that has taught generations of girls to become strong and independent in a safe environment. Anyone who donates to help save the camp will contribute to a future of well-rounded young women, she said.
“They’re making sure that other girls in the future – who could be their daughters, their nieces, their granddaughters – have access to a local use camp which can provide untold leadership skills and courage and confidence,” Johnson-Opalka said.
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