Promoting a Healthy and Safe Forest: Forestry Planning for Resident Camps

by Constance Scharff

Like most other camp administrators in Southern California and the rest of the drought-stricken portions of the western United States, I have kept a careful eye on the progression of bark beetle and the dead and dying trees they leave in their wake. Being part of the Girl Scouts of the USA, our camp has several “sister” facilities throughout the region. It was shocking to learn both before and after the devastating fires in October 2003 that most camps do not have forestry plans for their facilities.

When I first started in the camp industry, I began in the Pacific Northwest. There, dense forests were abundant. One literally could not see the forest for the trees. In 2002, I was given oversight of a Southern California camp and was astonished to find a forest that had many characteristics similar to those I left in the North. I was given responsibility for an overstocked, drought-stressed forest that was showing signs of insect infestation. Though not an arborist, I knew that something had to be done to improve the health of our forest, and it had to be done quickly before the bulk of our trees fell prey to disease or drought.

My education in forestry began by going to other camp directors and administrators. It was a surprise to find that, although we follow strict guidelines to keep our campers as safe as possible and mitigate known dangers, very little seemed to be happening to protect forest health. Even when forest health was discussed as directly affecting camper safety by decreasing fire danger, most administrators noted that they simply did not have the funds to undertake forestry projects and preferred to put their money to work in other areas of program and property development. Forestry projects, I learned, were not fun and flashy. Finding funds to manage forests seemed to be akin to finding someone interested in a naming opportunity to build a privy.

The fire damage to two Girl Scout camps in the San Diego area helped our board of directors to understand the importance of forestry planning. Girl Scouts works to improve the lives of girls through patriotism, service, values, and spirituality. We see our camps as vital to that undertaking. Keeping our property and our campers safe from fire has become a major priority. A healthy forest is just one sign of a healthy camp. Girl Scouts of the San Fernando Valley decided to undertake a forestry improvement plan for the health and safety of our campers.

Fire Prevention — A Primary Concern, But Not the Only One

Fire prevention was a primary concern, but not the only one. There were other potential benefits to creating a forestry management plan.

  • Increase supervision. Just by clearing brush, you can see an immediate enhancement of camper supervision. There are literally fewer places for campers to hide out, or hide contraband, in the sleeping units.
  • Decrease biological hazards. You can expect to decrease several biological hazards, including rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders.
  • Remove dangerous tree limbs. It is important to remove dangerous tree limbs to avoid one falling on a camper and injuring or killing her. In our case, we were concerned that we’d lose shade coverage or create a great deal of dust in an already dry and dusty camp. To our pleasure, we were assured that we’d see little negative impact to shade.
  • Improve health of campers. Even with no rain, native grasses spring up in some areas. Proper forest management will eliminate much of this foliage, decreasing the number of asthmatic episodes that our campers experience.

First Steps

We started by working with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) who referred us to the California Department of Forestry (CDF), since our facility is on privately owned land. Working closely with both organizations, we additionally solicited the volunteer support of a number of arborists, foresters, landscape architects, and other professionals in the field of forestry. Each told us the same thing — we had a forest that was overstocked, filled with ladder fuel and heavy brush, and contained the early stages of a bark beetle and mistletoe infestation.

In all honesty, our organization, like most nonprofit organizations, didn’t have much money available to undertake a forestry plan — and it certainly didn’t have any money available for undertakings not currently in our budget. Still, failure to act could have caused our forest and camp to be put in real danger. We had seen photos of the damage to camps in San Diego. We took action.

Taking Action

To improve the chance of survival for the healthiest trees on the property, dead and dying trees and heavy brush were removed to decrease competition for valuable resources. This included the removal of ladder fuel above and beyond what is required by government forestry agencies. Trees were limbed to remove mistletoe and hazard branches. Our membership was understandably concerned since we were the first in our area to undertake a task of this type. No one was sure what the results would be.

Intermediate Results

Though our facility is a long way from our goal state of a totally vibrant, healthy forest, the change is amazing. Those unfamiliar with the area are totally oblivious to the fact that any forest work has been done. Those who know the camp are impressed child supervision, while the beauty of the forest has been maintained. There has been an unexpected increase in the number of butterflies, birds, and bats at camp. This is keeping the bug populations down — a favorite unforeseen benefit of creating a more appropriately stocked forest. There has been no increase in asthmatic reactions since the first stage of our forestry project was undertaken. Though we still have a great deal of wildlife in the camp, populations of some dangerous animals through brush clearance are being controlled. Rattlesnakes are easier to find and relocate because they have fewer places to hide. The shading in the camp is more even and natural grasses are starting to grow in some areas. This is expected to continue once there is a good rain again. When we find more funding, we’ll continue to remove some of the scrub in the area and look at stand diversification to improve the forest’s chances of surviving future threats from pests, drought, and disease.

Lessons Learned

Several lessons have been learned from undertaking a forestry project at a resident camp, and we encourage anyone contemplating similar actions to learn from our challenges and mistakes.

  • Begin with the USFS (, CDF (, or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ( — depending on the ownership of the property. Even agencies that have not had direct responsibility for working with us have been very helpful. Some have free consultations or other resources for nonprofit organizations.
  • Talk with your local fire department. Our fire inspectors have been unbelievably supportive of our efforts to improve the health of our forests and mitigate fire risk.
  • If possible, obtain input from a number of people who understand trees/forests. Botanists gave a different perspective than landscapers. A full palette of advice helped us to put together a solid and affordable plan.
  • Be keen to look for ways to decrease competition among favored trees without harming the overall landscape.
  • Start with the most heavily used parts of camp first. This will help you to tie your forestry plan into your risk management, fire, and evacuation plans.
  • Consider water sources and ingress and egress of people and equipment when undertaking your plan. You need to be clear about priorities before removing or leaving any trees. Will your forestry plan help you get fire trucks into camp? Do you still have enough shade trees for people and vegetation to prevent erosion? Do you have a plan to maintain wildlife at camp? Will your water sources support all that you want to do with your camp and the environment?
  • If you don’t already have one, start a fire safety council with the help of local fire and forestry services. These councils can help the entire community band together to improve fire safety and forest health.
  • Read and review the forest management plan from the USFS. In California, you can review the plan at Pay particular attention to zoning in each of the alternatives proposed for your area.

With clear planning and forethought, creating a forestry plan cannot only lessen danger, but can also improve your overall camp program and camper comfort.

Constance Scharff has been a professional and volunteer member of Girl Scouts for more than ten years and served as camp administrator for Camp Lakota for the past three seasons. Scharff began her career in camping at the age of seventeen, only a few days after her high school graduation. Like many others, she began her work as a camp counselor and has held most camp-related posts during her career. Since her professional start in camping, she has remained a dedicated advocate for camps and camping.

Originally published in the 2005 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.