Girl Scout troop leaders report making some progress in trying to save their retreat at Lower Stillwater Lake, north of Whitefish. They’re now going into fundraising mode to save Camp Westana.
In the 50 years since the Girl Scouts began leasing the seven-acre site from the state, they’ve built a lodge and staff cabin, Adirondack-style shelters and tent platforms, drilled a well and put in a septic system, built a shower house, and constructed a stage for performances.
According to Kay Smith, the current camp caretaker who has assembled archival information to support the fundraising effort, the cost of the lease increased over the years from $50 to $500 before jumping to $1,890 in 1997.
The Girl Scouts currently pay about $5,000 a year, but based on a 2009 appraisal by the Montana Department of Revenue, the annual cost could increase five-fold to $25,000, far beyond the reach of the Girl Scouts’ main revenue source — cookie sales.
The most appealing option for the Girl Scouts to save Camp Westana is to purchase a permanent easement from the state. The state, however, wants $500,000 for the easement, according Columbia Falls troop leader Becky Johnson-Opalka.
The state is willing to give the Girl Scouts exclusive use of the property, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director Mary Sexton said earlier this year, but the state can’t give them a discounted price for the easement. About 10 percent of the state’s school-funding revenue comes from school trust land, and the Montana Constitution requires that the easement be tied to market value, she said.
The Girl Scouts have asked for a second opinion on the 2009 appraisal and have paid DNRC $3,510 to hire another appraiser of their choice. Johnson-Opalka said the appraiser was expected to make his first visit to the site on Monday, Dec. 10.
There’s one more complication — the Girl Scouts can’t hold the permanent easement. It must be held by a “public entity,” Johnson-Opalka said. So far, one state agency has agreed to fill that roll if the Girl Scouts can come up with the money to pay for the easement.
The local scouts received backing from Sally Leep, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Wyoming and Montana, in May.
“Memories, love and emotion are attached to the camp,” Leep said at the time. “It’s not about money. It’s priceless.”