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Scouts Out at Catalina : Cousteau Society Will Replace Summer Camp

August 17, 1991|RONALD B. TAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 65 years, the Boy Scout camp on Santa Catalina Island's Emerald Bay is losing its lease and will close after the last group of boys leaves Aug. 24, the end of the summer season.

The Santa Catalina Island Co. has canceled the Scouts' lease to make way for a $2.5-million aquatic resort and education center to be built by the Cousteau Society.

Scout officials have appealed to the island company to save the camp, but their prospects of success look grim.

"We are hoping for a big miracle . . . (that will) keep Scouting here," said Toby Sharp, director of the camp that over the years has introduced more than 100,000 Southern California youngsters to the island's marine environment.

The Cousteau facility is seen as a major step in the company's plan to increase the number of resort and recreational developments on the island 22 miles off San Pedro.

"We're not picking on the Boy Scouts," said Paxson H. Offield, president of the island company. "We're looking at all of our coves . . . to develop more environmentally sensitive, year-round uses."

At least one other youth camp, operated by the Girl Scouts at White's Landing, may also lose its lease by year's end, officials said.

The Santa Catalina Island Co.--owned by the Wrigley family since 1919--owns most of the developable land in the coves and harbors on the rugged, 76-square-mile island.

The remaining 86% of the land is owned by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization created by the company to protect the island's environment. More than 42,000 acres of the mountainous interior and coastal headlands are preserved as open space under state law.

The company and the conservancy have embarked on a program to restore and protect the island's native plants and animals. Officials say one of their goals is to eliminate the impact of hundreds of Scouts in one place.

The West Los Angeles Council of the Boy Scouts of America has operated Camp Emerald Bay since 1926. It is one of only two or three such ocean-based camps in the nation, and officials rank its aquatic program as the best of its kind.

The Cousteau resort would offer marine environmental studies and cater to what Cousteau officials call "ecological tourism,"--upscale, relatively costly recreational diving and other aquatic tourist activities aimed at educating adults and children to protect the marine environment.

"We realize (the Scout camp) has been there a long time, but we had to make a decision about what was best for Catalina Island," Offield said. "We've made a commitment to the Cousteau Society."

The news that the camp will close saddened Scout leaders. "It's like a death in the family," said Steve Kofohl, a high school math teacher who has given 30 of his summers to the camp. Jerry Kleeman, a Redlands Scoutmaster agreed, adding: "We love this place; there's no program like it anywhere."

Others were angry. "This is the opening wedge for the commercialization of Emerald Bay," said Steve Martin, a Woodland Hills attorney and former Scout leader who is spearheading the drive to save the camp. Martin said the company was insensitive to the role the Scout camp played in providing opportunities for boys who cannot afford the upscale Cousteau program.

During its two-month season, the Scout camp takes 400 boys a week from troops throughout Southern California and the West. By summer's end, 3,200 will have slept on cots in the green tent platforms, eaten in the rustic old dining hall and canoed in the bay.

The Scouts still hope to work out a compromise that will preserve some Scouting on Emerald Bay. Scout leaders said they were meeting with Cousteau officials to attempt to work with them on the development, but even that proposal seemed doomed.

"There just can't be any joint participation," said Larry Callahan, director of Cousteau's Emerald Bay project.

Callahan said the Cousteau Society is planning a low-impact environmental resort and education center that will accept only 50 to 100 paying guests at a time. A Scout camp taking hundreds of boys a week does not fit that concept, he said.

"As required by the lease, we're proposing to reduce the number of people using the area and reduce the impact on the environment," he said.

Island company and conservancy officials said they elected to go with the Cousteau proposal because it offered a year-round, low-density, environmentally sensitive development.

Scout officials heard that the lease was in jeopardy in April and had been negotiating to save the camp. Discussions centered on a $3-million Emerald Bay renovation plan that would have opened the camp for year-round use.

The Girl Scouts were equally disappointed to learn that they, too, may be forced to move from their camp at White's Landing when its lease with the conservancy expires in December, said Florence Newsom, executive director of the Angeles Council of the Girl Scouts of America.

"The conservancy is looking for alternatives at White's Landing. It is an area that is way underused," Offield said. "This doesn't necessarily mean the Girl Scouts would have to move out, but that is a possibility."

As word of the lease cancellation spread through the old camp this week, Boy Scouts and their leaders were stunned.

"This is my 10th summer on the island as a Scout, then a Scout leader," camp director Sharp said, standing on the dock watching scores of happy youngsters paddling red canoes around the bay. "I really hate to think we'll lose the cove. It's a very sad thing."

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