Camp Melacoma gets a new life

Caretakers form nonprofit group to buy former Camp Fire camp in Skamania County

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Washougal landmark Camp Melacoma has been purchased by a new nonprofit organization in a deal expected to preserve the recreational site's natural beauty for future generations.

"It will forever and always be a kids' camp dedicated to the community," said Dodi Jensen, who with her husband, Andy Jensen, formed the nonprofit Camp Melacoma Association to purchase the camp for $150,000 from Portland-based Camp Fire Columbia.

But the new owner must clean up an arsenic-tainted water system before it can reopen the historical 120-acre former Camp Fire facility. The rustic youth camp and surrounding acres of forest are more than 13 miles north of state Highway 14 in Skamania County, just off the winding Washougal River Road.

Public health officials shut down the camp in 2010 because of high levels of arsenic discovered in one of its three underground wells, a persistent problem with other wells in the area, said Nikki Hollatz, environmental health specialist with Skamania County.

"They were told the camp cannot operate until they install an arsenic treatment system," she said.

The facility could reopen within two years, say the Jensens, who have been the camp's live-in caretakers since 2008.

Valued at more than $1.25 million, the property includes 17 buildings. There are 11 bunkhouse-style cabins and two lodges -- Nieman Lodge, for dining, and Wineberg Lodge. It also features a heated outdoor swimming pool, an archery range, an open-air pavilion and a canoe pond.

Although the camp's $150,000 purchase price might be considered a real estate bargain, the Jensens, who both work full-time at other jobs, say they've also made substantial investments on the property's upkeep in the years since Camp Fire vacated the site.

Their nonprofit association plans to invest $75,000 to install a water treatment system to clean up the tainted well. Evaluating the treatment system's results could take several months, with no guarantee the site will be cleared to reopen, Dodi Jensen said.

"We have to do a minimum 11-month to 19-month pilot study to make sure it's removing the arsenic," she said.

The Jensens spent more than a year negotiating the sale, which included several concessions. The Camp Melacoma Association agreed to open the site for Camp

Fire's youth camp free of charge. It will also set aside three days of the year for Camp Fire and other groups to use the site for free, Jensen said.

The site's preservation for youth was Camp Fire Columbia's primary reason for selling at the discounted price, said Mark Baylis, a spokesman for the Portland-based nonprofit.

"It was always our intention that it was maintained as a youth camp for kids, so that was a primary factor as to why we sold it for that price," he said.

Jensen said she shares the same goal -- to preserve the woodlands and meadows of Camp Melacoma, established as a youth camp in 1948 and named after a Native American term for "where good friends gather."

She said acreage surrounding the site is zoned for residential development and has been purchased by a developer.

"It would have just been a matter of time before it would become housing," she said.

Cami Joner: 360-735-4532; cami.joner@columbian.com. Twitter: http://twitter.com/camijoner.