KILLINGWORTH, Conn. — As the financially-struggling Boy Scouts sell off a number of campgrounds, conservationists, government officials and others scramble to find ways to preserve them as open spaces.
A proposed $2.6 billion bankruptcy settlement designed to pay thousands of child sex abuse victims has added pressure on an organization plagued by years of declining enrollment, and Scouts and their local councils took advantage of their vast assets, including properties where some of them abuse took place. Developers bought some. Preservation groups hope others can be protected, and some lawmakers have taken notice.
“I emphasize to my colleagues that there is a clear urgency here,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who thinks there may be federal funds available to purchase Scout properties. “We do not have time to lose.”
For more than a century, Scouts and their local councils have owned properties across the country where generations have learned to enjoy the outdoors through camping, swimming and boating.
In the Connecticut state of Blumenthal, Scouts’ Yankee Council is considering a $4.6 million bid from developers for a 252-acre property, Deer Lake, near Long Island Sound, which offers camping, fishing and hiking. The council has rejected offers from two conservation groups, but is negotiating with one who has offered a revised offer.
Senator Blumenthal said he is considering the possible use of money from the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund to help purchase the Connecticut camp and other Boy Scout properties for sale. Across the country. Each state decides which projects to fund with this money.
Other properties targeted for preservation include 96 acres of what was the Boy Scouts’ Camp Barton, on the western shore of Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. It includes woods, streams, trails, and a 75-foot (23-meter) waterfall.
“They don’t do lakefront property anymore,” said Fred Bonn, regional manager of the Finger Lakes State Park System. “Access to the lake is difficult, both with its topography and what is privately owned.”
Several local towns and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation are working with the Baden-Powell Council of the Boy Scouts to try to preserve the land. A neighboring plot of 41 acres has already been sold by the Scouts to private interests.
It is unclear exactly how much land across the United States is owned by the Boy Scouts, in part because it is owned by local Scout councils. But evidence from the bankruptcy trial indicated local councils owned nearly 2,000 properties worth between $8 billion and $10 billion, said Timothy Kosnoff, a lawyer who represents more than 12,000 claimants in the bankruptcy.
The proposed bankruptcy settlement with the Boy Scouts of America would require its more than 250 councils to contribute at least $515 million in cash and property and a $100 million interest-bearing note. Kosnoff said the scouts will have to sell much of their land to help with the national settlement or, if that fails, to pay for continuing legal battles.
“I can’t predict how long it will take for all of these properties to be liquidated, but I think it’s inevitable,” he said.
Some victims of abuse have mixed feelings about the sale of the camps.
Joe, a victim who didn’t want his last name used because his family was unaware of his experience, was abused by his scout master from the age of 8 in the 1970s at a camp in Connecticut that was was sold years ago to make way for housing. on Candlewood Lake. He’s not sure he wants people camping on land where the scouts were once mistreated.
“I don’t have those warm feelings about those places,” he said. “It’s almost like ‘Poltergeist.’ Do you want your house on land where these things happened? So I don’t know what to do with these places.
The Boy Scouts of America said in a statement that the sale of camps may be necessary in some cases to compensate victims.
“Every decision must consider finances, viability of potential buyers, sustainability and meeting obligations to provide the best service to young people within their respective council,” the organization said.
Councils in states such as Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have all recently sold or announced their intention to sell fields.
Sen. Blumenthal said selling camps to developers goes against tenants of an organization supposed to teach environmental stewardship.
“Unfortunately local scout councils are selling to the highest bidder,” he said. “So I think it’s a national challenge, but it goes to the heart of what Scouting means and the ethos and ethics of Scouting, which they can betray.”
In Michigan, a consolidation of local Scout councils that began a decade ago led to the sale of many properties, including Silver Trails, a 269-acre camp about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Port Huron. A group called Thumb Land Conservancy tried to buy it in 2019, but lost when Pathfinders sold it to a gravel-mining company.
“They sold out, I think, 15 camps across the state,” said Bill Collins, executive director of the conservation group and former Boy Scout, who camped at Silver Trails. “So people now have to travel sometimes a few hundred miles across the state to get to camp. Well, that makes most day camp activities impractical and things like weekend camp outings much more of a chore for everyone involved.
In Maine, the Androscoggin Land Trust has entered into a purchase agreement to purchase the 95-acre Gustin Boy Scout Camp near Lewiston, which features a large pond and bog filled with wildlife. Aimee Dorval, the trust’s executive director, said the state government’s Land for Maine’s Future program agreed to pay half of the property’s estimated $415,000 value. The rest is collected through private donations.
The purchase would be part of the trust’s broader effort to preserve around 1,000 acres of open space along the Androscoggin River near Lewiston, land that has also been targeted by developers. The trust plans to continue allowing Scouts to use the land while opening it up to the wider community for camping and other activities.
Dorval said it’s important that groups like his step up as these camps come up for sale.
“There are accredited land trusts all over the country that can handle that,” she said. “I think it would be insane for people to stay away from this because of the (scout abuse) controversy. For us it’s not about that. It’s about conservation and to try to preserve an area for youth and nature-based activities and historical Scouting access.