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A Girl Scout camp in Tangipahoa Parish is for sale. Monies were not raised to repair the facilities so the area was put up for sale. But, who will buy it and what use will be put to the forested area?

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 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 possible sale has stoked anxiety at town halls and through social media by a cohort of conservationists and current and former scouts — some of whom attended the camp when it first opened in 1970.

The decision to sell did not involve the scouts themselves and the fear is that it will be sold to developers.

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. “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 cropped up quickly in Tangipahoa Parish in recent years, driving debate over impacts on flooding and natural landscapes.

The longleaf pines that cover the land are endangered as many of the forests of them have been destroyed by development.

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 181,000 acres they covered 200 years ago have shrunk to just 5,300 acres, though conservationists are working to bring them back. 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.

There has been a concerted effort to plant more longleaf pines on the camp grounds and the fear is that selling the land will bring an end to that effort.

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 Vicknairs, 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,” Vicknairs said. “As a mom, I want to have a place where girls can go and enjoy nature.”

One of the Girl Scouts ideals is the preservation of the land and Briscoe will make that one of the conditions of the selling evaluations.

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.”

The Girl Scouts have tried for years to secure funding to repair and build new as the camp facilities are in a dilapidated state.

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.

This was one of three Girl Scout camps in the state so the loss of this one will not mean the Girl Scouts will not be able to go to camp.

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.

A sad day for the Girl Scouts and hopefully not for preserving the longleaf pines.

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