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Scouts selling off prime wilderness - Councils trade in their camps for cash


07/08/2001

By Howard Swindle / The Dallas Morning News

GRANBURY After almost $3 million changed hands last year, a sign went up on the metal gate that leads to about 300 rugged but idyllic acres overlooking the Brazos River:

Richard Michael Pruitt / DMN

The Boy Scout insignia is still on a wall of Granbury's Leonard camp; elsewhere, signs make it clear this is no longer Scout land.
"Private Property" "This Property Is No Longer a Boy Scout Facility"" No Trespassing."

The Leonard Scout Camp, donated, in large part, nearly four decades ago to Fort Worth's Longhorn Council of Boy Scouts, hadn't been advertised with local real estate agents, and many volunteer Scout leaders found out about its sale after the deed had been transferred to a Dallas developer. Two months ago, Beaumont's Boy Scout council sold a 132-acre camp to a development corporation for $276,000. After the sale, the corporation acknowledged it planned to clear-cut some of the heavy timber at the East Texas site.

While Scout camps evoke Norman Rockwell images of boys beside backwoods campfires, regional Scout councils from Fort Worth and Beaumont to central Indiana, upstate New York and California have quietly sold off pristine chunks of wilderness "at least seven in the last two years."

The property, the bulk of which was donated decades earlier, has reaped millions of dollars for local affiliates of the boys' organization, which rely heavily on donations from corporations and United Way.

The Granbury site was being "encroached" by nearby development, according to Travis Richey, the camp's last Scout ranger, but the decision to sell could be read as "more concern about dollars than old-time camping values," he said.

"Camping remains an important experience for Scouts," said Greg Shields, a spokesman at Boy Scouts of America's headquarters in Irving. "That's not changing. Camping is a tool to convey the value goals of a greater mission

Uncertain future

Nationwide, the wilderness sales fuel the battle between environment and economics and offer rare insights into the local business affairs of the venerable boys organization as it tries to keep its footing amid slippery social change and an uncertain economic future. The nearly century-old group finds itself confronting the backlash of court battles to ban gays, challenges from year-round youth sports programs, changing demographics, increased competition for donations, outright funding curtailments by a few local United Way agencies and a series of dot.com-like mergers to keep troubled local councils from foundering.

More fundamental, some critics say, is the effect of the sales of wilderness campsites on the future and values-based philosophy of the Boy Scouts of America.

"I don't think they're following the Scouting creed," said Walter Riedel III, a longtime Scout volunteer and executive director of the Orange-based Stark Foundation, which donated the East Texas camp almost 70 years ago.

"As a Scout, I'm appalled that they would even consider selling that [Camp Bill Stark] for clear-cutting," he said. "They're going to lose 100 years of nature."

Indeed, Fieldbook, the Scout-published authority on camping and conservation, notes: "Financial gain alone is not sufficient reason to change the integrity of the backcountry." Jack Crawford, the Scout executive who took over Beaumont-Orange's
debt-ridden Three Rivers Council in January, said selling the camp near Kirbyville "wasn't greed, it was survival."

"This council had two camps, and neither one was being kept up," he said. "Instead of it [Camp Bill Stark] being a land asset, it became a money asset. The Boy Scouts are not in the business of raising trees; we're in the business of raising boys. Trees are a renewable asset."

Short-term vs. long-term

The trees-vs.-dollars issue unfolds as Scout councils on both coasts have just completed controversial multimillion dollar sales of some of their most prized and historic camping sites. In Los Angeles, environmentalists went to court last month to contest the $16.5 million sale of the 2,500-acre Firestone Scout Reservation to build a reservoir.

In New Jersey, the nation's oldest Scouting camp was spared from development when a nonprofit coalition put together $5.1 million to buy Camp Glen Gray. The 750-acre camp, which dates to 1917, is in Bergen County just outside New York City.

Shifting demographics and changing trends in society have "forced changes in Scouting like everything else over the years,'' said Roy Haston, the retired director of Scout rangers for the Fort Worth-based Longhorn Council.

Mr. Haston said that for years the Scouts were getting property for the future. Scouting officials got enrollment projections from school districts that anticipated a larger population growth than occurred, he said.

Selling campsites that aren't fully used, said the 24-year veteran of Scouting, is the only responsible option. "When we [Scouts] get land, it comes off the tax rolls," Mr. Haston said, referring to Scouts' tax-free IRS status. "And one way to look at it is, if we're not going to use it, it's not fair to taxpayers to keep it."

John Hartinger, a volunteer who challenged the sale of Camp Glen Gray, said selling off campsites may be short-sighted.

"If you look at the short term, there is a dip in numbers ... but over the next 10 years, there's going to be an enormous growth in children "more than the peak of the baby boom,'' he said. "A private, values-centered organization should be driven by values, not by the bottom line."

Local councils, which are autonomous, own 423 day camps and 258 high-adventure reservations around the country, according to Mr. Shields.

After selling Leonard, Fort Worth's Longhorn council has seven campsites. "We had a number of offers over the course of years from developers. Granbury was an encroachment problem, and Scouts don't enjoy camping in the city,'' said Scout executive Dan Clifton.

Neither the Dallas principal in the corporation that bought the Leonard Scout property nor its president returned telephone calls, and there has been no public announcement of plans for the former camp.

Mergers trigger sales

Although some Scout councils, like the Northern New Jersey Council and the Twin Rivers Council in Saratoga County, N.Y., have sold campsites to nature conservation groups that ensure the land won't be developed, other Scout land deals have spurred controversy. Before it was sold several years ago, Camp Madron was 240 acres of Scout camp nestled alongside Lake Madron in southwestern Michigan. Today, a portion of its timber having been harvested for firewood, Camp Madron is an exclusive subdivision of 49 summer lake homes for part-time residents, many of whom are from Chicago, 90 miles away.

Sale of the camp came amid the mergers of several councils in Michigan. "It [Camp Madron] wasn't deemed necessary after the merger," said Lyle Sumerix, a troop committeeman and a 30-year Scout volunteer. "Since then, they've closed several."

Officials at the Southwest Michigan Council in Kalamazoo did not return calls.

Although Boy Scouts is a nonprofit organization, its business affairs over the last several years have mirrored the corporate world of mergers and acquisitions.

National Scout officials say participation has grown steadily "from 5.4 million in 1990 to 6.1 million in 2000", "but the number of locally controlled councils dropped in the same decade from about 400 to 315."

"It has been a trend over the last 10 years to merge ... to maximize your assets," said Mr. Shields, the Scouts' national spokesman. Many councils, according to their executives, find themselves land rich and cash poor after mergers.

"There had been a number of mergers in Connecticut. ... Camping properties began to accumulate," said Harry Pokorny, Scout executive in New Haven. "The long-range strategy committee looked at all these developments and made a decision to sell one property and put money into improvements at the others."

In 1993, his council sold the Isle of Lakes Scout Camp to the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe for $5.5 million. The 1,200-acre lakeside retreat in North Stonington is across from the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino, reportedly the largest, most profitable gambling casino on the East Coast.

A portion of the site, which had been in Scout hands since the early 1950s, has been earmarked for a 36-hole golf course, according to local officials.

Half the $5.5 million, Mr. Pokorny said, went to endowments.

After several mergers with other councils, the Northern New Jersey Council found itself with nine camping facilities, according to Mr. Shields. Fort Worth's Longhorn Council, according to Mr. Clifton, inherited campsites near Lake Waco, Belton and Lake Whitney when it recently acquired Waco's Heart of Texas Council.

'Fiduciary responsibility'

Three Rivers Council in Beaumont, the product of a merger years earlier, was $50,000 in debt when Mr. Crawford assumed leadership early this year. That merger had left it with two campsites, Camp Bill Stark and the 760-acre Camp Urland. "Now because we sold Camp Bill Stark, we were able to have summer camp," he said.

"There were some people who said we shouldn't have sold the camp. United Way said we shouldn't have sold it, but given it away," said Mr. Crawford, estimating that the camp had $100,000 worth of improvements. "That would have been irresponsible in my opinion. There's a fiduciary responsibility to our benefactors."

The council spent about $26,000 from the sale on improvements for its remaining camp and put about $250,000 into its endowment fund, he said.

The national Boy Scouts headquarters began stressing endowments in 1993 as "rainy day" funds. By last year, according to Scout figures, cash and deferred gifts to local councils had reached more than $2.2 billion.

"Scouting in general at the national level could see the writing on the wall," said Travis Richey, the former ranger at the Leonard camp. "They could see United Way funding cutting back and the coming legal battles, so fund raising became a big deal."

Scouting's attempts to ban gays from its ranks prompted the United Way in San Francisco to pull or reduce its funding in the early '90s. Since then, according to United Way of America, nine other local affiliates from California to Connecticut have followed suit. Nationwide, the Scouts received nearly $84 million in 1996 from 1,400 United Way organizations.

Not all of the councils that have sold land were in financial trouble.

The year before the Leonard Scout Camp was sold, the Longhorn council's foundation listed $11.5 million in net assets, according to federal tax records.

"They were looking at dollars,'' said Chuck Black, a Scouting volunteer for 53 years who helped carve the camp from caliche and scrub cedar. "Property values had gone ape."

In 2000, the same year the Longhorn foundation sold the camp for $2.8 million, the council received over $500,000 from the United Way of Metropolitan Tarrant County.

Fort Worth and Dallas' Circle Ten Council are among a handful of councils that have nurtured tax-free foundations over the years. The Circle Ten Foundation listed $27 million in assets in 1999.

The 77-year-old Mr. Black, who was awarded the Silver Beaver Award, the organization's highest volunteer honor, remains committed to Scouting. He voices his opinion about selling Leonard only when asked point-blank:

"I'm not for it," he said, tamping the tobacco in his pipe. "They're not making any new land."



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