This blog chronicles some of the early steps in the Save Westana movement. It was initially intended to give more detailed information about the steps and options we were facing, at the time that I was able to be involved. It now serves as early-on background, with some occasional news from a more peripheral perspective, if and when I have any to share.
For more than 50 years, local Girl Scouts have been staying at Camp Westana on Lower Stillwater Lake. But by next year, the memories and joys that go with camping there could vanish.
Camp Westana is on state school trust lands, and those lands were reappraised by the Montana Department of Revenue in 2009. The seven-acre parcel, with a generous expanse of lakeshore footage, skyrocketed in value, and the lease the Girl Scouts pay to use the land increased from $5,000 a year to $25,000. The local troops simply can’t afford that.
“It’s 50,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies,” noted Tom Sago, whose family members are involved in Girl Scouts.
A box of cookies sees a 50-cent profit.
Troop leaders from Columbia Falls and the region are working on solutions to save the camp, but none of them are easy fixes. They met again last week with regional leaders to brainstorm solutions.
Several ideas have unfolded. First, the scouts have agreed to pay for a reappraisal of the property. That could lower the value of the land and the scout’s lease payment. Land values were high when the Revenue Department did the appraisal in 2009, and they have dropped substantially since the real estate bubble burst. But even if the appraisal comes in lower, the land value is still likely to be higher than the prior appraisal done in 2003.
Another option is a land swap. The scouts could look for a donor willing to swap with the state for a piece of property equal to or greater than the value of Camp Westana. The site on Lower Stillwater Lake, however, is worth about $500,000, and finding a donor could be difficult.
A third option is a permanent easement. The easement would allow the scouts to use the property in perpetuity after they pay a lump sum to the state, according to Mary Sexton, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Sexton said the exclusive use of the property for the scouts could be negotiated in an easement.
But the state can’t simply give the scouts a discount on the lease, Sexton noted. The Montana Constitution requires that the lease be tied to market value. About 10 percent of the state’s school funding revenue comes from school trust lands, Sexton said, and not all are scenic lakefront properties. The Costco-Lowe’s shopping center in Kalispell, for example, sits on school trust lands leased from the state.
All the above-mentioned scout’s strategies are viable options, Sexton said, but the clock is ticking. DNRC gave the scouts a one-year extension on their current lease while they try to find a solution. They have until November to come up with a plan, which has to be in place by next March.
“We really, really want to work with them,” Sexton said.
Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish, is also working with the scouts for a solution, but he’s not happy with the lease requirements.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Beck said if the Girl Scouts leave, the property will be empty and the state will get nothing. But Sexton disagreed. If the scouts leave, the state could lease it to another entity or sell the land and buy another piece of property somewhere else.
Ironically, a land sale would provide the scouts an opportunity to purchase the Camp Westana site they ultimately could lose if they can’t find a lease solution.
Meanwhile, the local scouts received the blessing last week from Sally Leep, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Wyoming and Montana, to go ahead with a reappraisal.
“Memories, love and emotion are attached to the camp,” Leep said. “It’s not about money. It’s priceless.”