INDEPENDENCE — Plans to sell a beloved Girl Scout camp in the piney woods of eastern Tangipahoa Parish have ignited worries among environmentalists and former scouts who fear an endangered forest on the property will be razed by a development-hungry buyer.

The Girl Scouts’ Louisiana East chapter said in late June it would sell Camp Whispering Pines — a 600-acre outdoor getaway off La. 1054 — after attempts to raise nearly $1 million needed for key repairs fell through. The property has neither been appraised nor placed on the market yet, said Madeleine Briscoe, the chapter’s chief development officer.

The camp's possible sale prompted a cohort of both current and former scouts — some of whom attended Camp Whispering Pines when it first opened in 1970 — to quickly rally.

Dubbed “Friends of Camp Whispering Pines,” the 50-person coalition has launched a GoFundMe campaign in an effort to buy the property. Doing so could save thousands of rare longleaf pine trees on the property, said Joan Doyle, a former Girl Scout parent and conservation worker acting as the group’s spokesperson.

The GSLE board chose to sell the camp quickly and without consulting scouts themselves, according to Doyle — raising worries that the pristine natural site may be sold for development.

“In Tangipahoa Parish, the pressure to develop land at this time is tremendous,” she said. “Conversely, the pressure to maintain some of these pristine areas is even more pressing.”

New commercial, residential and energy-production developments have appeared rapidly in Tangipahoa Parish in recent years, driving debate over impacts on flooding and natural landscapes.

Native to a swath of Southeast U.S. coastal plain stretching from East Texas to Virginia, the camp's longleaf pine trees offer pristine habitat conditions for hundreds of animal species, including threatened gopher tortoises and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Ravaged by a century of logging, the trees are now themselves classified as endangered. The 90 million acres they covered in the 1800s have shrunk to less than five million acres, some of which conservationists have planted through reforestation efforts.

Longleaf pines cover about 300 of the 595 acres of forest at Camp Whispering Pines, plus scattered stands of trees in other locations. Woodpeckers and gopher tortoises are among the species who call the camp home, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1994, a coalition of environmental groups and state agencies joined forces on a five-year initiative to save the "unique, threatened habitat" at Camp Whispering Pines, according to a 2003 report by the Louisiana Forest Stewardship Resource Management News.

The effort included planting longleaf pine seedlings and prescribed burns vital to preserving the trees' habitat. Since then, present and former Girl Scouts have continued pitching in to preservation efforts.

Margie Vicknair-Pray, a conservationist at the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club, said selling the camp risks putting an end to those efforts. 

“As an environmentalist, I don't want to see the camp go because of the longleaf and all the endangered species that depend on the longleaf,” said Vicknair-Pray. “As a mom, I want to have a place where girls can go and enjoy nature.”

The Girl Scouts hold preservation of the outdoors as one of its pillars, Briscoe said, and buyers’ commitment to stewardship of the land will be one of the criteria on which they are evaluated.

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In the past decade, state and federally-owned land home to 3.4 million acres of longleaf pine forest have hosted large-scale conservation efforts aimed at revitalizing the trees’ presence across the South.

But another 4.6 million acres of longleaf pines grow on privately-owned land, like Camp Whispering Pines, a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found. Those areas don't fall under federal and state conservation efforts unless the property owners decide to partake in them.

“Thus, private landowner support is key to the restoration of longleaf pine ecosystems on 4.6 million acres by 2024,” the report’s authors wrote.

Asked whether terms of sale on the Camp Whispering Pines property would include rules stipulating the preservation of longleaf pines there, Briscoe said that the sale “is an evolving process with details yet to be finalized.”

Girl Scouts Louisiana East for several years fought for funding to repair dilapidated facilities at the camp before choosing to sell the property.

The money would have gone towards fixing an ailing spillway at Camp Whispering Pines’ lake. The man-made lake — used by Girl Scouts for swimming, canoeing, and other water activities — is threatening to dump into the Tangipahoa River, which could cause flooding downstream.

One funding battle over the repairs played out in the Louisiana Legislature. A House panel drew fire in 2018 for declining to move $850,000 needed to fix the spillway on the same day it approved $780,000 for a Boy Scout camp in the Atchafalaya Basin swamp.

Concerns that the lake could spill into the river recently caught the attention of Tangipahoa Parish Councilwoman Kim Coates, who chairs the Council’s Development Regulations Committee.

In the flooding-weary parish, caution will be important in evaluating how a buyer will use the property, Coates said.

“More development might not necessarily be the answer there,” Coates said. Parish Councilman Carlo S. Bruno, whose district encompasses Camp Whispering Pines, did not immediately return an interview request.

After shuttering Camp Whispering Pines, Girl Scouts Louisiana East will shift to hosting Scouts at its two other Louisiana Camps — one in Covington and the other in St. Francisville — and at a new “Experience Center” located in a “high-traffic retail area,” according to a press release.

With the Scouts’ membership numbers depleted by the pandemic and its revenue down, selling the beloved camp was a last resort, Briscoe said.

“I’d hate for anyone to think we arrived at this decision rashly,” she said.

An earlier version of this file reported an incorrect number for the original acreage of longleaf pine forest in the United States. Longleaf pines covered 90 million acres before deforestation.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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