SABATTUS — They greeted one another like long-lost brothers amid the quiet backdrop of Loon Pond. In the distance, the thick stand of pine trees surrounding the small pond and the clouds overhead reflected off water smooth as glass.
"You were Troop 111. I was, too," said one man as he walked up to shake hands with 76-year-old Fred Huntress of Poland. Huntress was one of the earliest Boy Scouts to spend time at Camp Gustin in Sabattus shortly after the property was donated by the Gustin family 60 years ago. His greeter was clearly from a younger generation of Scouts who — like Huntress and his generation — learned to love the great outdoors, respect nature, survive off the land and leave no trace behind.
"I got my Eagle Scout badge here in June 1949," Huntress said as he looked around the camp whose future is suddenly uncertain after Scout officials from the Pine Tree Council announced last week that the camp might have to be sold.
Like many Scouts past and present, Huntress was especially outraged over the Scout officials appearing to
draw a connection between the potential value of the real estate and
the council's need to pay off nearly $1 million in debt. Around 300 Scouts and their families gathered Sunday afternoon at Camp Gustin during a rally that kicked off an annual Scout food drive and served as a
show of support for the camp.
The Pine Tree Council represents the southern portion of the
state, has more than 12,000 Scout members and 3,800 volunteers.
"We want to save Camp Gustin so the kids can have a great time," said A.J. Beaudoin, 11, of Lewiston, a Cub Scout from Troop 007. "The first time I came here, I was like 'Wow! This is a really nice place!' And I met a lot of new friends here from a lot of other Packs."
The 100-plus-acre camp on Loon Pond in Sabattus doesn't
have a single mess hall or bunkhouse, just one covered shelter and two
outhouses. It's been estimated Camp Gustin's sale could bring in more than $350,000.
Scout Executive Tony Rogers told the Sun Journal last week that the
debt owed on Portland's Cianchette Scout Service Center was in no way linked to the potential sale of Camp Gustin, even though records show that the four-year-old center's debt represents $900,000. Rogers said the council is eyeing all four of its Boy Scout camps to measure their worth to the Scouts through a property committee looking at Gustin, Camp Hinds
in Raymond, Camp Bomazeen in Belgrade and Camp Nutter in Acton.
A final analysis is due to be released next fall. For now, no final decision has been made as to the potential sale of Camp Gustin or any other of the state's Boy Scout Camps, according to Rogers.
"One of the reasons I went to forestry school was because of my involvement with the Boy Scouts," said Huntress, who works as a forestry consultant. "I don't see how you can teach kids to protect and preserve land when the Boy Scouts want to sell it to make money. What is that teaching them?"
As the afternoon sun struggled against the gray sky, the fog that hung just above the water across the pond for most of the afternoon eased its way toward Camp Gustin — ready to overtake the primitive campground in much the same way camp supporters fear developers will eagerly swallow the pristine ground and spit out a subdivision.
"They keep urbanizing the woods of Maine. And in today's society, they're trying to find easy ways of making money instead of working at it," said Lawrence Gustin Webber, 48, of Sabattus. "Where's it going to end? Are they going to take another Scout camp somewhere else because the land builds up around it? They show no respect."
Webber indicated the newer homes along Loon Pond Road leading up to the camp. He was one of several family members of the late Charles Gustin who attended the rally in support of area Boys Scout troops looking to save his family's legacy. Most spoke openly and loudly about their fears that if the property is sold, then it will be broken up into waterfront lots and sold.
"We don't want to see it sold. We want to see it forever wild, just as dad want it to be," said Charles Gustin's son, George, 77, of Wales. "I don't know what sort of financial problems they have, but selling this camp isn't the answer to it."
Charles Gustin donated the land so that young could boys could grow to be young men while learning to camp, canoe and appreciate nature.
Former Troop 007 Scoutmaster Robert Reed, who helped organize Sunday's rally, told Scouts and their families that recent talks with the Pine Tree Council revealed three viable options for their beloved camp: do nothing and leave the camp as is, sell the camp to local troops or sell the camp outright. The last option was met by rousing boos and cries of dissent from the crowd.
"I think that they came to us to tell us what they were going to do, and they were surprised by the reaction they got," said Ed Desgrosseilliers, new chairman of the council's Abnaki District,
which includes Camp Gustin.
While Desgrosseilliers said he believes the council's debt
and sudden interest in selling camps are separate, he was left feeling suspicious during a meeting last week because the council would not answer his direct questions about the camp. He told the crowd Sunday that the council assured him that it would provide more information — including a look at the council's financial records — during an upcoming meeting.
"You've got to be upfront and honest," Desgrosseilliers said of what he told members of the council. "You're wearing a Scout uniform. You can't shade the truth. What example does that set for your adult leaders and their young Scouts?"
Local Scout leaders contend that camp upkeep costs the council only about $100 a year. Rogers declined to provide an actual figure but said plowing, maintenance and insurance costs for the camp are more than the public would think. However, during the rally, Reed pointed out longtime camp caretaker Gino Camardese, who told the crowd that he has never billed the Pine Tree Council for any of the work he does around the camp — including plowing and maintenance.
"Some people buy land for investment. Some people buy land for purpose," said Charles Gustin's granddaughter, Beth Gustin Ashcraft, 48, of Litchfield. "And when you've got that kind of meaningful attachment to a piece of land, and it might get turned into someone's investment, it's hard to let go. It's hard to fathom that could even be possible."