SABATTUS — Local Boy Scout leaders fear the latest tree-cutting at Camp Gustin could signal the end of a 60-year tradition of wilderness camping at the 130-acre site.
Not only will the aggressive cutting make it impossible for a true wilderness camping experience, it might be the the first step toward readying the property for sale, the scouting volunteers say.
The head of the group that oversees Gustin and other camps for the Scouts says the cutting is routine and unrelated to any possible sale of the camp.
The fate of the expansive, undeveloped land fronting Loon Pond is expected to be the subject of next month's board meeting of the Pine Tree Council, the organization that oversees scouting in southern Maine.
A year ago, a council subcommittee floated the idea of selling the property and got a chilly reception from scouting folks in the Lewiston area.
The council has struggled in recent years with money matters, including nearly $1 million of debt for its headquarters built in Portland five years ago. Unlike last year, the council managed to finish this year in the black, but only squeaked by, said Ed Desgrosseilliers, Pine Tree Council Abnaki District chairman.
The ongoing wood harvesting on 85 of the camp's 130 acres is expected to yield roughly $80,000. Some say the recent action shows it's being stripped of its natural resources before being marketed as land cleared for housing development, an assertion disputed by the council's executive director.
The $900,000 still owed on the Portland building, the Alton E. “Chuck” Cianchette Scout Service Center, was refinanced recently to make the monthly payments more affordable, Desgrosseilliers said. That has helped ease the strain on finances. But local Scout leaders say it's unclear where the proceeds from the harvesting might end up.
Anthony Rogers, the council's executive director, said Thursday that neither the timber cutting nor the possible sale of the camp is aimed at paying down the council's debt. Desgrosseilliers agrees.
He and others involved in the council's Abnaki District, which serves Androscoggin and Oxford counties, said what they believe is a push to sell is the result of bad management.
The latest spark in the debate over the camp's possible sale is the cutting. The denuded forest has changed the complexion of the property and it could take decades to restore the camp to the wilderness setting that has made it so valuable to the Scouts over the years, Desgrosseilliers said.
“They've destroyed a camp that is used by Scouts for scouting,” he said. “They've removed that wilderness atmosphere.”
More than 50 Scout packs, troops and crews use the camp. But an inventory undertaken of the council's four camps showed that Gustin was used least, Rogers has said.
The land was deeded to the Scouts by Charles W. Gustin in 1933 for camping. It has a dozen campsites that include open-air shelters and latrines, but few other amenities. “Countless boys have learned to swim, tie knots, pitch tents, build fires and save lives at Camp Gustin,” according to the council's website.
Local Scout leaders met earlier this week to discuss the cutting and upcoming council meeting. They wondered why the cutting was being done before the ground had a chance to freeze, making for tougher going on muddy logging roads. Softwood values are depressed, making sale of the harvest less marketable, they said.
“What appears devious to us is that what was presented as one thing is really another thing,” Desgrosseilliers said.
But Rogers and Walter Stinson, who heads up the council's committee that oversees council properties, said Thursday the cutting is strictly routine and shouldn't be construed as anything else.
“Timing in life is everything, and it may appear that there is some relationship there,” but there isn't, Stinson said. He confirmed that his committee would be making a recommendation to the full council at next month's meeting on whether to sell Camp Gustin. But the cutting has nothing to do with that recommendation, he said. “I can tell you that the two are unrelated. That's a fact.”
Rogers said the timing of the cutting was driven in part by the schedule of the loggers and the need to work around seasonal use of the camp.
Stinson said the cutting is part of a forest management program the council follows for all of its forested properties under the guidance and supervision of a registered forester. Asked whether the cutting is strictly maintenance or is being done to harvest trees for their timber value, Stinson said: “It's probably both.”
“It's not something that's being done because certain people think that that camp is going to be sold,” Rogers said. Even if Stinson's committee hadn't considered the possible sale of Camp Gustin, the same cutting would have happened at the same time, Rogers said. Stewardship of the camps is part of the council's mission, he said.
The decision whether to sell the camp property will be left to a simple majority of the 38-member council board, Rogers said.
“I don't think they'll support this sale,” Desgrosseilliers said. Some have said the Camp Gustin property could fetch as much as $375,000, but Desgrosseilliers is skeptical, putting the figure closer to $200,000, given the current real estate market.
The deed to the council for the camp property includes language that could bar its sale, Desgrosseilliers said. The council had drafted an affidavit for George Gustin's heirs to sign, saying it wasn't Gustin's intent to have use of the land restricted to camping activities.
The family hasn't signed that affidavit, Desgrosseilliers said. Two of Gustin's sons recently wrote a letter to the council to say: “We do not believe that the sale of the property is permissible. We believe that it was our father's full intention that when he gave this property to the Boy Scouts, that it be used as a campsite and for camping by the Boy Scouts in perpetuity.”
Desgrosseilliers said he planned to invite Gustin's grandson to attend next month's council meeting so that the board might hear opposition to the camp's sale from a direct descendant of the late benefactor.
“We've been in contact with the Gustin family numerous times and it's all been very positive," Rogers said. "There's nothing nefarious about our meetings with them. We respect the original gift that Charles Gustin provided this council and whether the council retains that property or reallocates the asset to another form to support the scouting program for kids, we'll work with the Gustin family to carry on the legacy of that gift in the Gustin name.”