From the late 1930s to 1979, Camp Ouachita hosted generations of Girl Scouts. But since then, the camp, on the National Register of Historic Places and believed to be the only extant Girl Scout camp built by the WPA, has been unused and fallen into disrepair.
But Arkansas young people will be able to return to the camp to cure what is being called a “nature deficit disorder” as plans by the state Game and Fish Commission take shape.
The commission has been OK'd for a 20-year special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service to maintain and operate the camp, which today consists of seven restored cabins and a Great Hall. Barring any appeals, the permit should be issued in July.
The National Forest, with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Save America's Treasures program and other federal funds, has completed a $2 million renovation at the camp. Heating and air conditioning and bathrooms were installed in the rock cabins and a commercial kitchen was included in the restoration of the Great Hall, which seats 120.
The state will take it from there, creating a year-round conservation education center at the camp by next summer if all goes as planned. The commission will go to the legislature next year for funds for staffing, Mike Bonds, chief of educational services for Game and Fish, said. The cabins would be available to the public; Bonds is guessing rental would be in the $60 to $70 a night range. One cabin is outfitted for use by the handicapped and is about 500 square feet; the others are smaller.
Not only would Camp Ouachita offer outdoor opportunities for students and family groups, it would offer training for teachers taking part in the Project Wild program to integrate nature into school curricula.
There are four education centers now: at the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area center, the Ponca Elk Education Center, the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center on Crooked Creek in Yell County and the Potlatch center at Cook's Lake near Casscoe. They cost about $100,000 a year to run, Bonds said.
Deputy Director David Goad said the camp would be a “Central Arkansas treasure.” He referred to “Last Child in the Woods,” a book by Richard Louv that warns that children who grow up without exposure to the natural world are at risk for mental and physical health problems. “We're trying to get kids outside,” Goad said.
Goad envisions the construction of barracks to accommodate students. There are a number of outbuildings at the camp that could be restored.
“There a ton of women that went to that camp,” Goad said, “and we're helping they'll come forth and help us with funding. … We'd like to put it back as close to what it was.”
The commission made a presentation Sunday to the Game and Fish Foundation, which it hopes will raise funds for capital improvements at the camp. (The presentation was made in the dark, since a tree fell on the power line to the Great Hall. “That's one thing we'll need,” Bonds said, laughing: “A back-up generator.”)
Money from the 1/8-penny conservation tax will help fund programming. “We're bigger than hooks and bullets,” Bonds said. Add arrows to the picture; Bonds said an archery range is a possibility. There should also be canoeing, hiking and maybe a firing range, Goad said.
Game and Fish will open the camp for special events until the conservation education center is created.