Building a Sustainable Summer Camp

by Tamra L. Dollin

Ever wonder what it takes to build a ‘green’ camp from the ground up? What does it mean to build in an environmentally sustainable way? How do you minimize your impact on the land while building a facility to comfortably house hundreds of campers and staff every year? In what way can the physical buildings reinforce the educational values being practiced at camp?

Ramah in the Rockies is responsible for building up the magnificent 360 acre Rocky Mountain site which hosts Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a unique specialty camp (funded by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jim Joseph Foundation) combining outdoor adventure and environmental awareness with vibrant Jewish living and learning. The core values of Ramah in the Rockies are: Limud (Learning), Etgar (Challenge), Yirah (Awe) and Shemirat HaTeva (Stewarding the environment). We wrestle every day with the challenge of putting those values into practice as we contemplate and build new structures on the property to accommodate the growing number of campers wanting to attend Ramah in Colorado.

We are building several new structures for this coming summer, including new tent platforms, a programming pavilion and a new restroom. Here are some questions we have to answer:

How many years payout are you willing to go?” This means how much more money are we willing to pay now, for savings that may take several years to realize? This must be considered when contemplating energy saving techniques or alternative energy sources. For example, a recommendation has been made to add a solar array or solar ‘garden’ to our site, which would feed electricity back to the public grid. Investing in a solar array would cost money up front, but the savings would be realized over a period of several years, by lowering our monthly electrical bills, and we would be using a clean source of energy.

Do you have a master plan for sustainability at the camp?” We actively seek out partnerships (other non- profit organizations, government agencies or corporations) and hope to serve as a laboratory for some new ideas in the field. Some suggestions include building with recycled wood harvested from local dead trees with a company from Austin, TX, solar powered cabins made from renewable materials with an Israeli firm, equine anaerobic digestors to reuse horse manure to power barn lighting. We are reaching out to NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory), located in nearby Golden, CO for assistance in formulating an overall strategy.

We have adopted the following sustainable initiatives for our new restroom facility about to be built: pre-heated water using a rooftop solar water heating system, reducing both electricity and propane use, ‘daylighting’ to maximize natural light during the day, putting all lighting systems on timers to control usage, ‘metering’ of sink and shower faucets to reduce water consumption and installing two-button flush system for toilets. This is in addition to our existing solar composting toilets, thoughtfully built by our predecessors the Girl Scouts, which are clean and odor- free desiccating (non-flushable) toilets.

To keep our initiatives on track, evaluate new ideas, decide on implementation, we formed a Sustainability Committee. Last summer, this committee took charge of several exciting initiatives, including the planting of hundreds of trees in a heavily burned area of camp, arranging for chickens to live at camp and be cared for by the campers, and initiating the beginning of a camp wide recycling effort.

Developing these sustainability initiatives will take time, energy and resources, but our vision is clear:

We are both users and stewards of the land and our natural resources. It is our imperative to care for nature as we are enriched and nourished by its bounty.

Tamra L. Dollin is Project Director, Ramah in the Rockies.