Monday, January 25, 2010

NY Times 1/24 article on Staten Island's Pouch Camp

The following piece appeared in the NY Times , Pouch Camp, which is under threat of sale and potential developement , which means destruction and fragmentation of the famed "Greenbelt".

January 24, 2010
A Celebrated Scout Camp on Staten Island Is in Jeopardy
IN the wooded heart of Staten Island lies a rugged spread of land, crowned by a rustic lake, that has provided camping grounds for Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts from the New York area for 60 years.

It is called Camp Pouch, and though relatively few New Yorkers know of it, in the subculture of scouting it is celebrated. Many of the 52,000 scouts in the region visit throughout the year to pitch tents; build fires; apply their half hitches, bowlines and other knots; use a compass; apply first aid; and otherwise practice sometimes old-fashioned scouting skills.

“You walk up to a piece of dirt and you have to make a home and a community and live together for a week” is how William S. Kelly, a scouting official, strips the program down to its essentials.

But all that is now in jeopardy. In November, the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts of America, the owner of the camp, announced that financial pressure might force it to put Camp Pouch on the market.

The group, hit hard by the recession, has been operating at a deficit, and corporate and other donations have fallen by $5 million over the past 18 months — a colossal wound for an organization that until recently ran on a $15 million budget.

The staff has already been cut by 40 percent, to 60 employees, and the group’s space in its Empire State Building headquarters has shrunk by 60 percent.

The Boy Scouts hope that a conservation organization like the Trust for Public Land will buy the development rights to most of the 140-acre property, Mr. Kelly said. The sale would provide an infusion of as much as $30 million to the Boy Scouts, and the trust, a preservation group, would see to it that the land is never developed for purposes like housing.

The Boy Scouts, which have had conversations in recent years with the trust, would keep the lodges and cabins and use the rest of the property just as they now do.

Trust officials confirmed that discussions have been held.

“The camp is not currently for sale,” said Mr. Kelly, 30, an Eagle Scout who is the group’s spokesman. In a later interview, however, he bluntly added that if the gambit with the trust fails, the Scouts would have to sell all or part of the property. In that event, the camp might host another sprawl of houses that, at least until the recession, were consuming the borough like Pac-Man.

Staten Islanders are closely watching the fate of Camp Pouch because it lies in the core of the borough’s Greenbelt, 2,800 acres of woodlands and meadows that wind through several neighborhoods. The land includes parks, golf courses, ball fields and Moses Mountain, a 200-foot mound of rock blasted during construction of the Staten Island Expressway, a Robert Moses project.

The camp, which was named after William H. Pouch, a scouting advocate, is not technically part of the Greenbelt, but it helps to create a contiguous scenic expanse and a habitat for deer, owls, snakes, turtles and herons.

“It would fragment the Greenbelt,” said Kathleen Vorwick, president of the Greenbelt Conservancy, referring to any development of Camp Pouch. “It would lose its value to humans but also to animals and flora.” The conservancy oversees the Greenbelt along with the city’s parks department.

The loss of Camp Pouch would be most painful for the scouts. Matthew Brown, 16, a junior at New Dorp High School on Staten Island and a scout since he was 5, told how camping regularly at Pouch had taught him to put up different kinds of tents, to whittle wood with a pocketknife to help build a fire and to tie a clove hitch to drag the heavy wood needed to sustain a fire.

As important, doing such things with 30 members of his troop had taught him how to work cooperatively. Those skills, he said, could not be learned as well in the church hall where his troop — Troop 37 — meets, and he and his troop would be upset to lose a vibrant patch of the natural world like Camp Pouch.

“Camping outdoors is the cornerstone of scouting,” he said. “And at Camp Pouch we can get more in touch with the wilderness and real outdoor scouting.”

Many troops use it not only for camping but also as a base from which to tour New York. Rich Perrone, scoutmaster of Vista Troop 101 from Lewisboro in Westchester County, visited Camp Pouch recently with his troop to see whether they could stage a bicycle tour of the city while camping there.

After surveying the property and the five miles of roads leading to the Staten Island ferry, they decided that they could. And if the camp were sold? “We could go to a hotel,” Mr. Perrone said, “but our objective is to set up our camp and use the scouting skills we stress with the boys.”

The New York Scouts also own two other camps — Ten Mile River in the Catskills town of Narrowsburg, N.Y., and Alpine, north of the George Washington Bridge in Alpine, N.J. But those sites are far from Staten Island, whose scouts are Pouch’s prime consumers.

Camp Pouch features several spots for pitching tents and other sites equipped with cabins or open-front lean-tos. There is also an archery range and a climbing wall on the grounds, as well as Ohrbach Lake (named after the department store family), where thousands of children have learned to swim and row. A store at the camp sells scouting uniforms (about $100), camping equipment and scout insignia.

In the summer, there is a day camp for boys and girls that can handle 500 children.

On the drive into the campground, 12 signs display the 12 qualities of the ideal scout — “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

On Dec. 12, a rally to save Camp Pouch drew 1,500 people, some holding signs with slogans like, “Scouting Without Pouch ... Ouch.”

The city has also been involved in discussions about rescuing the camp, said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner. He pointed out, however, that with agencies required to cut their capital budgets by 30 percent this year, it was highly unlikely that the city would buy the property. Instead, he said, the city might encourage a white knight, like the Trust for Public Land, to do so.

As they confront tough fiscal times, camp and Greenbelt officials do have one ace in the hole. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is an Eagle Scout — a lifetime distinction.