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Pine forest on the property of Camp Whispering Pines, near Independence, La., seen Oct. 27, 2021.

A Girl Scouts chapter that wants to sell a cherished camp in Tangipahoa Parish went to federal court Friday and asked a judge to dissolve a state court order blocking a deal it's already reached.

An advocacy group opposing the sale, Friends of the Longleaf Pines, won a temporary restraining order halting the camp's sale last week, after arguing to a Jefferson Parish judge that Camp Whispering Pines' new owner was felling endangered pine trees on the secluded property east of Baton Rouge.

In documents filed Friday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, Girl Scouts Louisiana East argued the case belongs in federal court because of accusations that the buyer is cutting down longleaf pines that fall under U.S. endangered species laws. But the Scouts chapter also denied allegations that a buyer was “clear-cutting” trees on the property at all.

Brush clearing underway at the camp is actually routine forest maintenance following Hurricane Ida, which decimated the pine forest along Louisiana’s I-55 corridor, Girl Scouts Louisiana East’s attorneys said in the new court filings.

The camp’s buyer will maintain “existing forestry management practices'' under the purchase agreement, including removing timber for age and health reasons and replanting trees that are removed, attorneys said.

The purchaser has remained unnamed because they entered a non-disclosure agreement with the Scouts chapter.

Girl Scouts leadership chose a buyer for the 600-acre property near Independence in September, saying only that the purchaser is a private landowner interested in conservation. Tangipahoa Parish land records show a final sale of the property has not yet been recorded.

Selling Camp Whispering Pines was a last resort, Girl Scouts Louisiana East officials said when the chapter announced its plans to sell the camp in July. The chapter had tried for years to muster around $1 million needed for repairs to the 600-acre property, but fell short.

One of those efforts included a funding pitch to Louisiana lawmakers in 2018. The state legislature ultimately waffled on handing out funds for the repairs even as it allocated money for a Boy Scouts of America project, drawing ire from Girl Scouts supporters.

The sale sparked consternation because of generations of ex-Scouts’ fond memories of the camp, and because conservationists fear what might befall the property’s delicate ecosystems in the hands of a private landowner. Longleaf pine forests are ideal habitats for several endangered animal species.

On Friday, attorneys for Girl Scouts Louisiana East asked the Eastern District to lift Judge Ellen Kovachs’ temporary restraining order on the camp’s sale, saying that the order fell short of legal standards because it lacked proof that clear-cutting was already happening on the property.

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Such orders aren’t meant to be granted “to allay fears or apprehensions,” they argued.

“Yet here, all FLP has done is speculate and hypothesize, without supporting evidence, that a sale will harm them or that forestry management practices may cause harm to the environment,” the chapter’s attorneys wrote in court documents.

Girl Scouts Louisiana East is represented by Baton Rouge law firm Phelps Dunbar.

Some officials as well as Girl Scouts leadership deny claims that a buyer is razing pine forest on the property. In the Oct. 25 meeting of the Tangipahoa Parish Council, Independence-area councilman Carlo Bruno sought to assuage resident fears that trees were being clear-cut.

“As far as I know, the timber that’s being cut is storm-damaged timber,” Carlo said. “I do know this gentleman who’s bought it is not in the habit of clear-cutting timber. ... He’s trying to get all of these trees that have been blown over or broken off to be cleared out.”

In an interview, Bruno declined to identify the buyer.

Testimony from conservation experts filed with Friends of the Longleaf Pines’ lawsuit alleged that clear-cutting is underway on the site. One of them is Dr. Philip Stouffer, a Louisiana State University professor of conservation biology who has conducted research on the camp property in the past.

Stouffer said in an affidavit that “a portion of this forest was recently clear-cut of all longleaf pine and all tree stumps were uprooted in these clear-cut zones following Hurricane Ida.” In an interview, he said that people familiar with the Whispering Pines sale told him that trees and stumps had been removed from the property, leading him to the conclusion that clear-cutting is underway.

Stouffer is less worried about what has already befallen the camp property than what could happen to its ecosystems in the future, he said.

“I don’t know what’s going on on the ground right now,” he said. “But I know what was described to me, and the potential for it to be cut and for mechanical disturbance to the ground, and disruption to the burning regimen. Those are the things that I’m concerned about.”

Leonard Fisher, an attorney for Friends of the Longleaf Pines, did not immediately return a phone message Friday afternoon.


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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