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Camp host Richard Ingram, left, speaks to Ranger Brian Tritle and Public Services Team Leader Ann Long Voelkner about the history and uses of Camp Rabideau on Monday, Aug. 12. The Forest Service is currently conducting a comment period about a recent assessment calling for special use permits to groups that would allow overnight and year-round use of the camp. Photo by Christen Furlong.

Rabideau controversy boils again

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BLACKDUCK -- Since its establishment in 1935, the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp known as Camp Rabideau, has been a source of controversy for residents and groups in the Blackduck area for decades.

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Camp Rabideau is one of three intact CCC camps in the nation that were built in 1935 to provide employment and conservation skills to young American men during the Great Depression. The camp, located just inside the Chippewa National Forest, was put on the National Historic Registry in 1976 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

As of July 26, 2013, when a legal advertisement ran in "The American," yet another comment period has been in the works over of the Forest Service's most recent environmental assessment regarding the future of Camp Rabideau that could potentially allow it to issue special use permits to groups that "would provide program enhancements and ongoing facility maintenance" on the Camp Rabideau grounds.

This special use permit would entitle its holder to overnight use of the camp in addition to year-round access -- neither of which is offered currently.

The comment period ends August 27, exactly thirty days after the legal notice was published. All parties interested in voicing their concern or support regarding the use of a special permit on the Camp Rabideau site should contact the Blackduck Forestry Office to officially give comment in writing.

According to Ranger Brian Tritle, who will be the ranger to review the comments and make a final decision on the matter sees overnight and year-round use as a means to keep the camp from falling into disrepair, as it has in the past.

"Where we are at, is that the Chippewa National Forest really feels that the best thing for the future of Camp Rabideau is to have multiple reasons to keep this place in good operable condition and open it to the public," Ranger Brian Tritle said. "Right now, its obviously open to the public and it's going to remain that."

According to the Camp Rabideau environmental assessment performed in 1997, all of the buildings (13 of the original 25 remained at the time) were "of frame construction and considered to be temporary." When the camp was constructed and used in the mid- to late-1930s, the buildings were made of pre-fabricated materials made in Washington State and were not designed to withstand the weight of snow and overall harshness of Minnesota winters. Therefore, year-round and overnight use was impossible let alone allowable.

For camp neighbors Jan Geerdes and Brian Merrill, the issue of overnight stay extends beyond simply maintaining the site and carrying on the essence of the CCC, it brings an added fear of who the permit holders might be.

"I don't think that our neighborhood -- our lives -- need to be affected because the Forest Service has made some decisions and now they're crying for help," Geerdes said. "I don't think that we should have to suffer for their poor management and their poor analysis."

Merrill added: "We're the ones who have to put up with the aftermath of whatever decision the rangers do or do not make -- they're here for a short amount of time. That's why I really wish they would listen to our comments and concerns because we really do have quite a few."

Those comments and concerns stem from safety for themselves and their property, the availability for public use and tourism as well as the effects of a year-round camp on Taylor Township and its taxpayers.

In the past, Camp Rabideau has served as an alternative learning center for Cass Lake students working toward their GEDs. There have also been other summer groups that brought at-risk youth and provided interdisciplinary work to juvenile offenders at Camp Rabideau, who experienced issues with runaways and drug usage.

A combination of the authentic construction of the buildings and the push back from local residents from 1997 and beyond has kept the process of updating the camp and issuing permit down to a snail's pace.

But the those residents who have been speaking out against the more recent changes to the camp were never opposed to its restoration in terms of installing new foundations and rebuilding the walls and roofs to save the camp's history.

Because all CCC camps in the nation were closed down following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Camp Rabideau sat empty until 1945 when the University of Illinois began using it as a summer camp for its forestry and surveying students for the next 28 years. They made various improvements to several buildings including bathroom installation, mess hall repair and new electrical wiring. But when 1975 came and went, so did the University of Illinois and, again, the camp sat empty -- this time for over 30 years.

The only building restored between 1975 and 2009 was the education building in 1999, competed through a volunteer effort. The rest of the buildings threatened to buckle and, later, when restoration funding finally became available, some could not be saved.

"The buildings were literally melting into the ground," Public Services Team Leader Ann Long Voelkner said. "This is an amazing opportunity that people have to come and be a part of the their own history."

According to Long Voelkner, Tritle and camp host, Richard Ingram, the reason the camp still stands today is due to the renovations and upkeep done by the University of Illinois. The

The above-mentioned funding was retrieved via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which gave toward reinforcing the buildings and getting them up to code. However, that money also extended into further improvements such as insulating dormitory housing, laying the foundation and heavy-duty wiring for a commercial kitchen in addition to a bath house complete with male and female sections, flushable toilets and hot water.

These changes involved the installation of a septic system as well as the drilling of a six-inch well, which sparks controversy due to their outright contradiction to the original statements made in the 1997 environmental assessment that informed the public that electricity, water and sewer systems were not planned. It also stated that none of buildings' interiors would be changed besides the education building.

"The tranquility of Camp Rabideau CCC is not expected to change because no significant development is planned," the 1997 assessment stated. "But we do believe an increase in visitors is likely."

That tranquility projection has been greatly altered after several environmental assessments throughout the last 15 years which have slowly evolved from no private use, to a special use permit for overnight use up to 14 consecutive nights and, finally, to a final plan allowing availability up to 356 days a year for special use permit holders both during the day and at night.

"As a local person, you don't feel welcome to the camp," Geerdes said. "You feel as though you are an intruder because there are other people using the camp. What worries me is that if this is open year-round, how is that going to be a historical site on a national registry? Are people really going to feel welcome? We aren't gaining a piece of history, we're losing it."

According to the Forest Service, the added amenities and restored facilities can no longer be maintained and financially taken care of without an added partner to finish the construction and foot the bill of the site's maintenance.

"That's because of their improvements," Geerdes said. "Now they are complaining that they have to have a special use permit because they can't cover the operating costs that they created. They created the problem for themselves."

The Forest Service hopes that whoever would apply for the permit would also take responsibility for maintenance costs and further construction. However, all changes and updates to the site must first be submitted for comment by the National Environmental Policy Act and be approved by the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office.

Currently, the only interested partner is the Rabideau Conservation Academy and Learning Center (CALC) which currently boasts a conservation skills program for financially-eligible youth through the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program. However, their interest does not close the door on other programs that can meet both the financial and social requirements needed by the Forest Service to use the camp -- a stable conservation or learning program, financial means to maintain camp upkeep and proper supervision capabilities for overnight and year-round use.

"There's been some improvements made to facilities that, at this point, we've decided we need to go to the public before we can move forward," Ranger Tritle said. "I'm just going to say that and that's not the most comfortable thing for me. I'm new to the district here.

"That's an odd position to be in. Those improvements are in place and now I'm deciding whether to use them. It's not ideal."

Mainly, bringing in outside groups to maintain the camp and provide conservation and job skills is the Forest Service's way of keeping the spirit of the CCC alive. According to Long Voelkner, the opportunity provided by CALC through sustainability, resume writing, building enclosed gardens and turning those resources into a product meets the goals of of the former 1935 Camp Rabideau.

Neighbors living in Taylor Township have voiced their concern over allowing any group the ability to stay at the camp overnight because it heightens the possibility of crime in an area with an approximate law enforcement response time between 25 to 30 minutes.

"Again, the overnight thing has just become this glaring issue that invokes concern over an escapee or someone who runs away from a program who might end up on their property," Ranger Tritle said. "That's really what the fear is about -- that someone is going to escape and go looking for trouble."

Ranger Tritle has already received a mix of responses within the comment period -- both positive and negative. The positive comments all include praise for continuing conservation education for youth and job skill development for youth. These comments are submitted by varying entities such as: Local residents, the National Park Service, law enforcement, the City of Blackduck, partner organizations and agencies and the Beltrami County sheriff.

All the comments received within the 30-day period will assist Tritle's decision on whether or not the Forest Service will allow overnight use and year round availability.

"These are not energy-efficient facilities," Long Voelkner concluded. "That cost can also inform a partner what they can and cannot provide."

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