When it comes to saving Camp Kilworth in Federal Way, a third time’s the charm.
Three nonprofits banded together to preserve the nearly 30-acre camp with plans to restore and reopen the grounds for community use in 2024, serving youth in King and Pierce counties.
“Isn’t it exciting this is all going to be saved?” said Mary Ehlis while traversing through the overgrown trails of the camp on a recent July morning. Ehlis, who has lived in the area since the early 1980s, is a longtime advocate of ensuring Camp Kilworth remains available for kids and adults to enjoy. She is also president of the Kilworth Environmental Education Preserve (KEEP).
Camp Kilworth is a former Boy Scouts of America (BSA) camp located in the southwest corner of Federal Way near Dash Point State Park. Built on one of Federal Way’s last remaining high bank forests overlooking Puget Sound, the grounds are home to miles of trails, historic lodges and a rich past worth protecting, supporters say.
The camp was one of four BSA camps to close in 2016 due to declining revenue and membership. In March 2022, the 29.33-acre coastal forest was purchased by Forterra, the state’s largest land conservation nonprofit.
The purchase price of Camp Kilworth is approximately $1.76 million. Of this funding, $1.68 million was secured from the King County Conservation Futures with $81,000 from Central Puget Sound Watershed (WRIA 9) Cooperative Watershed Management (CWM). An additional $500,000 was obtained from CWM for acquisition and site restoration costs. Over $1 million was secured by Sen. Claire Wilson, Rep. Jamila Taylor and Rep. Jesse Johnson in the 2021 Legislative session to support the camp.
Forterra acquired the parcel with plans to grant a long-term lease to the YMCA of Greater Seattle to use the land as an outdoor day camp for youth, family events and environmental education. Local nonprofit KEEP is responsible for the historic and community engagement aspects.
The organizations are planning to restore and maintain the Timberwolf Lodge, which was originally built in the 1930s and was used for ceremonies. The log cabin Rotary Lodge and the 300-seat Nye Bowl Amphitheatre, named after former club president Farlin Nye of the Rotary Club of Tacoma #8, which helped build the camp, will also be restored.
Other cabins and ceremony lodges throughout the camp will be demolished and made into new structures or shelters, according to officials. The groups are also working with the land’s original owners, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, to ensure the ancestral land is used appropriately.
History of Camp Kilworth
In 1934, William Washington Kilworth deeded the acreage to the Tacoma area Boy Scouts of America troops as a permanent camp to teach scouts crafts, cooperation and self-reliance among many other skills, according to historic records from KEEP.
Over the next 82 years, Camp Kilworth provided space for outdoor adventures — from camping and hiking to archery and BB gun practice, and learning wilderness skills.
Troops flocked to the camp from Browns Point, Dash Point, Northeast Tacoma, as well as areas now known as Federal Way, Fife, Burien and beyond. Maintenance of the grounds in the mid-1900s was done entirely by service clubs.
Pacific Harbors Council of Tacoma attempted to first sell the property in 2001, according to KEEP, and local residents and scout families sought to maintain the property as a camp and natural open space for the community and coastal wildlife.
However, the deed’s restrictions noted the land must be returned to the Kilworth Foundation if the BSA had no use for it. So, the camp was obtained by the Kilworth Foundation, which opted to put the property up for sale.
The City of Federal Way attempted to buy the property in 2005 after citizens lobbied for the camp to be open for public use, but was struck down when the state’s Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in 2009.
For the next several years, the camp was intermittently closed due to safety concerns of soil stability and diseased trees. Pacific Harbors Council voted to close the camp, along with three others, in 2016 and the camp site was put up for sale. The local groups spent years advocating to city council, county officials and political representatives the importance of the land.
In 2018, Camp Kilworth was listed as one of the state’s most endangered places by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
In addition to restoring the land, KEEP is working to have the camp listed as a historical landmark site — which would be the first in Federal Way.
“It’s not about freezing in time, but about slowing down change,” said Sarah Steen, landmarks coordinator for the King County Historic Preservation, at an Aug. 10 community meeting.
The landmark structures of the site include the Timberwolf and Rotary lodges, the lawn in front of the Rotary Lodge and the amphitheater. Not only does a landmark title protect the space, it also opens up the possibility of additional funding grants.
A hearing for the Historic Landmark nomination is set for 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, in person and on Zoom.
Originally, access to the camp was only by water until the Dash Point neighborhood roads were installed in the 1950s — about 40 years before Federal Way officially became a city.
“Everything was centered on the water initially,” said Nicholas Carr, conservation director of Forterra.
Camp Kilworth sits on a “feeder bluff,” Carr said, which are important elements for the survival of the salmon population in Puget Sound. As juvenile salmon travel toward the ocean, they remain close to the bluffs and feed off of bugs or other food which fall into the water from the trees, plants and grounds of the bluff.
“They need these little niches,” Carr said. “Camp Kilworth is providing a critical feeder bluff and it must be restored naturally.”
Feeder bluffs also deliver sand and gravel to the beach blow as the bluff erodes over time, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. Low tide reveals the camp’s additional 6 acres of land.
Future of Camp Kilworth
In the years since its vacancy, the camp has taken a beating.
“Since the scouts left in ‘16, nature goes on,” said Suzanne Vargo, a board member of the Federal Way Historical Society and Camp Kilworth advocate.
Invasive plant species of ivy and laurel shroud trails and pathways, and many of the structures are hidden from sight, overtaken by overgrown weeds, trees and bushes. Vandals took every piece of copper writing and metal plaque from the site — even the original wrought iron chandeliers from the Rotary Lodge were cut free and stolen.
Broken glass, obscene graffiti and decaying structures due to the lack of ownership in recent years prove the new caretakers have a lot of work to do. But restoring the site to match the glory of the surrounding nature is more than enough motivation, Vargo said.
As it did for over eight decades previously, the plan is to begin year-round operations at Camp Kilworth upon reopening, said Gwen Ichinose Bagley, chief youth development officer of the YMCA of Greater Seattle.
Programming will fit the community’s needs, developed through engagement processes, and focus on outdoor and indigenous education, she said. Possibilities include summer camps, after school programs and the ability for community members to use the camp’s facilities and grounds for gatherings. The camp will likely host around 125 kids per day in the summer, once open.
The Y also upholds a promise to be inclusive and broaden camp access to underrepresented groups, specifically Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities, Bagley said.
“Our intention is to honor the land and honor its beauty,” she said. “We look forward to what’s next.”
Celebrating the save
Project leaders hosted a community meeting on Aug. 10 to share the news that Camp Kilworth has been saved. On a big cake in the back of the room, a photo of the Rotary Lodge was surrounded by frosting trees and the words: “Camp Kilworth Est. 1934, Saved 2022. Thank you!”
About 35 people attended the meeting; some are longtime neighbors of the camp and said they couldn’t wait to hear the exited voices of children playing in the woods once again. Others were former Boy Scouts themselves, praising the preservation of outdoor exploration.
At the front of the room, a member of KEEP announced to the crowd that Camp Kilworth was saved. Applause and cheers of joy erupted, fists thrust in the air. And when celebration ends, the work begins.