This is a post I wrote a few weeks ago about greening our camp for the FJC called the Campfire:

How do you start a green camp, from the ground up?  This is one of the questions we have set out to answer through the development of Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies.  As a brand new camp, we have had an amazing opportunity to put into place green practices that will become part of our camp tradition.  As our summer draws to a close, I believe we have made steps in the right direction, but are still only beginning to become a truly “green” camp.  Perhaps the most important two lessons we have learned is that greening a camp does not have to cost additional money, and that at times good intentions do not always translate into practical solutions.

Our greening process began when we rented our first office in Denver.  Our modest offices were actually a storeroom in the Federation building.  Rather than decorate the office with new furniture and wall hangings, we found used furniture throughout the building that we could use.  Aside from buying two new desk chairs, everything else came from items that would have otherwise been discarded or donated.

Look around most offices and one will find file drawers with reams of paper.  As a new organization we decided we were going to run a “paperless” office.  We set up our registration system so that it lived in the cloud.  Rather than buy a nice laser printer, we accepted a donation of a used ink jet printer that printed only a few pages a minute.  We purposely did not network the printer so that if we wanted to print, we had to physically plug in our laptop to the printer.  By doing this, we saved 1000s of sheets of paper.  Printing did take longer than usual, but it made us think twice before we hit the print button.  In our first nine months of operation we used less than one ream of paper!  This was a savings way beyond what we had expected.   We finished the summer with one file drawer of papers.

In addition to printing less on our printer, we did not produce much printed collateral in our recruitment process.  Instead, we invested heavily in our website and produced one small paper post card to send to prospective families.  Rather than publish a DVD to include in our mailings, we placed our recruitment video online.  Not only did we save on printing costs, we also spent very little on mailing fliers to prospective families.

At camp we have continued with our greening practices.  Rather than look to costly “green” items, we looked around to see how we could run a green camp without heavy capital investments.

We started with the living area:  Our campers live in raised cabin tents made of canvas sides and waterproof tops.  By design, there is no electricity in the tents.  Campers who are awake after dark use flashlights to read.  In addition, each tent has two solar lanterns that are placed in the sun during the day and then used to illuminate the tent at night.  Finally, the tent area is illuminated with solar path lighting which cuts down on the electricity usage.

Although we have electricity throughout the main buildings in camp, we strive to use as little as possible.  One of the best ways to do this is to use the natural light of the sun.  We set our daily schedule to maximize the amount of time we are awake with the sun.  Our camp day begins at 6:00am—shortly after sunrise, and always concludes by 8:00pm just before sunset.  This means that throughout the day we do not need to use electricity to light the dining hall, the shower house or the barns.  Instead we rely on the natural light of the sun.  Even as campers are getting ready for bed, they do not have to use their flashlight.  Although I was often up way past night fall, I only used one set of batteries, as I usually was able to use either a solar lantern or the moonlight to walk around camp at night.

Throughout the camp we have attempted to recycle whatever items we can find and use them in building new structures.  For example, in our refurbished staff house, we have put in a new deck, new screens and doors using recycled materials found around the ranch.  Similarly, we found two old picnic tables on the ranch that were built years ago and abandoned.  We moved them to a more central location, painted and refinished them.  Campers now enjoy hanging out on them.  Perhaps the best example of reusing old material is the new amphitheater that our campers finished building last Sunday.  They decided to turn the old low ropes course, which had been deemed unsafe for use into our new beit kenesset (synagogue).  The teens used many of the old elements in constructing the new sanctuary.  For example, the bima was an old platform used for balancing games.  The Shulchan is a large wooden spool used for heavy grade wire.  The entrance is part of an old pull up bar.  The seats are made of logs from trees that used to live in the area and planks that use to be part of a climbing wall.  The place that was once used for one kind of community building is once again being used for a different kind of community building.

Greening a camp goes well beyond waste produced at camp.  A green community must also look at the waste produced in other places.  In particular, a camp must examine the food it consumes and the waste produced in the process.  We created a menu that was almost entirely vegetarian.  Except for a weekly bar-b-que and occasional Friday night dinners, all our meals are vegetarian.  Whenever possible we source sustainably grown food.  This meant that we ate lots of organic items.  We ate few processed foods and when possible shopped for local produce.  For most of the summer we actually sourced much of our produce from a local organic farm; twice during the summer we sent our campers to the farm to help tend the crops that we would eat in camp and bring back the food we would eat the following week in our dining hall.  Our vegetarian diet allowed our kitchen to produce fresh, wholesome and delicious meals.

I could go on with each of our projects but space is limited.  So just to name a few more: We planted over 500 trees this summer on the ranch.  We raise our own chickens.  We planted our own vegetable garden and we use reusable high grade china dishes whenever possible.

I wish I could say that we ran the greenest camp possible.  But we have more to do in the coming years.  We currently have a sustainability committee who is working hard on making us even greener in 2011.  Here are a few of the projects on which we are working:

– Sourcing local organic meat

– Recycling more of our waste (with the goal of being zero waste by 2013)

– Enlarging our garden and chicken coop so that we can grow more of our own food

– Placing photovoltaic sensors on all lights so that lights automatically go off at dawn (often we would forget to turn off the lights in the bathroom/showers until later in the morning)

– Sourcing at greater percentage of our food from suppliers who practice sustainable agricultural techniques.

– Composting our food waste

We attempted to achieve some of these goals this summer but did not achieve the success we were hoping for in all these areas.  For example, once we arrived at camp we discovered that composting for a large community is far more difficult than composting in ones backyard.   Not to mention, as licensed child care facility we need to use rat proof/ bear proof containers which are very costly.  Similarly, while we attempted to run a recycling program for metal plastic and paper, we could not find anyone willing to haul the waste for us to a recycling plant.  Instead much of it ended up in the garbage.  For next year we will have to purchase a bear proof hauler and take it down to the recycling plant ourselves.

Despite the tasks that lay ahead of us in preparing for 2011, I feel that we ran one of the greenest camps in the country without making major capital improvements.  Our campers have left with a new appreciation of the luxuries they have in their life (like electricity) and we also helped our campers realize that to live green does not require one to but an expensive hybrid car or install solar panels on ones roof.  Even small steps can make a difference.

– Rabbi Eliav Bock, Director, Ramah Outdoor Adventure