Where can you try zip-lining, horseback riding, camping, swimming, hiking, or other outdoors activities you’ve never tried before, with a group of your new best friends – and an assist from someone with more experienced to guide you?
The answer could be one of the organizational camps that operate on many of the seventeen National Forests in the Pacific Northwest.
Organizational camps are located on public lands and managed by third-party organizations under the authority of a Special Use permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service.
There are 44 such camps operating on national forests in Oregon and Washington, each offering unique opportunities for people who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the beauty and adventure opportunities available on forest lands.
“Permittees are able to offer a wide variety of experiences to the public,” Shawnee Hinman, regional special uses program manager for the Forest Service, said.
Because the agency’s work involves balancing multiple uses of the forest, many of the most-developed recreation sites on National Forest System lands are operated by permittees.
“They’re vital partners… often providing the unique level of services, with more staff, more amenities, more flexibility, and more infrastructure than what the Forest Service can normally provide,” Hinman said.
The extra amenities and services provided at some organizational camps are especially important because they provide opportunities for members of the public who need more support than the minimalist facilities offered at many Forest Service operated campgrounds and recreation areas.
For example, people with different ability levels, such as special medical needs or mobility challenges, that can limit their activities on forest lands could find better opportunities to enjoy their public lands – while sustaining the support or assistance they need to do so safely – at an organizational camp.
“These are organizations whose sole purpose is enriching the lives of others: spiritually, physically, or emotionally,” Nathan Fletcher, special use manager for the Mt. Hood National Forest, said. “The main idea here is that these groups are improving lives through outdoor experiences.”
The Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp, located on the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, introduces people with disabilities to the great outdoors via day outings and overnight camps. It offers a 1:1 ratio of campers to counsellors, offering eight weeks of summer camps and two winter retreats each year.
“We provide one of the only fully-accessible camps on Forest Service lands in the nation,” Matt Grager, the Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp’s communications director, said. “The real magic of the camp is that if you were to pull up to our 22 acre camp, it would look like a regular summer camp straight from the movies—camping, hiking, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, even whitewater rafting and a ropes course… you name it we got it – the campers get to do all of the traditional summer camp activities just geared around the needs of people with disabilities.”
The Boy Scouts of America operate numerous camps on national forests in the Pacific Northwest, providing day, overnight, and week-long summer camps for youth from around Washington, Oregon, and the United States.
These camps expand recreation access to the outdoors for young people from all across the country, including urban, suburban, and rural areas, offering activities ranging from archery lessons to week-long trail riding trips on horseback.
Organizational camps can create deeply rooted relationships and a connection to the land that reach from the forest to the Forest Service, and back into the community.
More than 500 people participate in programs at the Mt. Hood Kiwanis camp each year, and many return year after year. In fact, some of the organizations campers have been returning each summer for 20 to 30 years, Grager said.
Most of the camp’s counselors come from Portland State University (PSU) where students earn 6 credits for their participation as a capstone project for the college’s degree programs. Approximately 4500 college students have served as Kiwanis camp counsellors since the partnership was first established in the 1970’s.
“The experience the counselors have is as transformative for them as it is for the participants,” Grager said.
The Forest Service doesn’t have the capacity to provide the kind of individual attention these organizations can provide for their visitors, Hinman said – but considers organizational camps to be important partners in creating those opportunities for a diverse group of campers.
“We so appreciate the many organizations who invest so much into helping so many people get outdoors who otherwise probably wouldn’t get the chance,” he said.
To find out what organizational camps operate in your area, contact your local forest supervisor’s or district rangers’ office. Organizational camps may also be listed on the forest’s website, under Recreation or Special Use program offerings.
For the 2019 season, the Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp will host a barbecue to celebrate the last night of each weekly camp. Skits are performed by campers and counselors. The community is invited, and food and music will be provided. Barbecues are scheduled every Thursday, through Aug. 18. A $10 donation is suggested.
Chris Bentley is the Website and Social Media Manager for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement