Photo: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images
The Deer Lake Scout Reservation in Killingworth, Connecticut was originally acquired by a local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America as a parcel of farmland in the 1960s. Little has changed in the decades since: The 253-acre camp is a stretch of dramatic rock formations and pristine beachfront where scouts climb the ice, weekend goers roam the trails and birdwatchers watch for ospreys. This is one of thousands of pristine woodland properties owned by local Scouting chapters Across the country, and it is put up for sale to the highest bidder.
When Boy Scouts are in trouble, they tend to unload their belongings. The organization faced falling numbers for decades, but the child sex abuse lawsuits involving more than 82,000 former Boy Scouts and expected to result in a $2.6 billion settlement signals something closer to an existential threat. At least $515 million of this settlement will be contributed collectively by local chapters, which is why so many of them have recently sold or announced their intention to sell their camps.
The Connecticut Yankee Council, which owns the Deer Lake property and operates the local Scouting chapter, has already paid its $2.6 million share of the settlement to the national organization. But he is looking to make big bucks from the sale, rejecting two offers – one for $2.4million – from conservation-minded groups who want to keep the land as it is in favor of a bid for $4.6 million from Margaret Streicker, CEO of New York development group Fortitude Capital. Local residents have launched a fundraiser for “Save Deer Lake,” and local officials say they are frustrated with a bidding process that prioritizes Boy Scout results over the public good: “I’m exhausted nerves with the Yankee Council right now,” a city elected official Told CT Insider this spring. Streicker has so far declined to give details of his plans for the property, but said she sincerely hopes someone else can beat her offer.
These confrontations between conservationists and Boy Scout chapters often involve opposing interpretations of decades-old acts produced when early conservationists donated property to Boy Scouts under specific conditions – for example, that land remain a place where young people can enjoy the outdoors. A lakeside property in Belgrade, Maine — a city where the population doubles during the summer — has gone to a private family for an undisclosed sum as part of a buy-and-sell agreement earlier this year despite an ongoing lawsuit from the attorney general and conservation advocates over the terms of the original deed. Florida residents are trying to raise $1.1million to buy a 60-acre camp on the Ocklawaha River recently For sale by the Boy Scouts.
Every day, the United States loses approximately 6,000 acres of open space; the Boy Scouts of America has a significant amount of this type of terrain – the kind of mountainous countryside and undeveloped woods that shrinks by the second. And as the big sale of Boy Scout land continues, it seems only shitty environmentalists or benevolent developers might be able to keep it that way. How could a nonprofit now known for its massive sex abuse scandal become the steward of so much precious and endangered natural land? It took a century for the scouts to recover it. It will take much less time to waste.
Before the Boy Scouts faced allegations of abuse that rivaled those of the Catholic Church, the organization had spent a century building its influence. John F. Kennedy was a Boy Scout, as were Bill Clinton and George HW Bush. Early oil barons like Waite Phillips entrusted part of their fortune to the organization responsible for turning the nation’s boys into men of integrity. According to court documents, the Boy Scouts currently hold assets worth more than $1 billion, including vast oil and gas holdings and an art collection with more than 50 paintings by Norman Rockwell. – including a painting of a Boy Scout giving a salute titled “I’ll do my best.”
The Boy Scouts own a lot of land. According to some accounts, the approximately 200 local chapters of the Boy Scouts own 2,000 camps, which does not include properties like the Philmont Scout Ranch – a huge expanse of mountainous wilderness in the Rockies managed by the national organization. In New York State alone, chapters control 35,000 acres (largely a treasured lakeside property), making the organization’s cumulative footprint in the state larger than that of Disney World in Florida. Much of this land was donated by alumni of the organization or wealthy environmentalists like Virgil McCroskey and Harry Trexler – men who inherited or built vast industrial fortunes around the turn of the 20th century and then gifted them to the Boy Scouts so that young men like them could grow up respecting the backcountry and the wild, undeveloped lands. The Boy Scouts purchased some of his land on their own with funds raised by local chapters. Until recently, the organization was a safe philanthropic bet.
In 2020, facing thousands of individual lawsuits across the country, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, freezing pending cases and ensuring future litigation would go through bankruptcy court. At the mandatory judicial deadline, more than 92,000 applications had been submitted of people who have alleged childhood sexual abuse by adults in the organization for several decades. The month the trial ended in April; a bankruptcy judge, Laurie Silverstein, is currently reviewing the organization’s plan to create a $2.7 billion compensation trust.
Throughout the process, the Boy Scouts’ real estate became central to its plan to pay survivors: In 2019, as bankruptcy neared, the national organization mortgage the 140,000-acre Philmont Scout Ranch, the crown jewel of his holdings, to pay for expected costs. (In previous years, probably in a similar effort to find money, the ranch had started renting”luxury luxury tents” with upgraded bedding and towels.)
“Some of these properties are hot, super hot for developers,” says Timothy Kosnoff, an attorney representing more than 12,000 abuse victims involved in the Boy Scouts bankruptcy lawsuit. “In some cases, you have thousands of linear feet of water in Long Island Sound.” According to Kosnoff, evidence presented during the trial suggests the properties owned by the chapter alone could be worth between $8 billion and $10 billion.
There’s Camp Parsons, a 165-acre former logging camp on Washington’s Hood Canal, and Camp Flying Eagle on the banks of Florida’s Manatee River – an attractive riverside property (where grows Spanish moss) which was observed by the developers since at least 2006. Until recently, there were a number of camps in the Poconos and on Puget Sound where homes cost tens of millions of dollars, although many of these camps have already been sold. As Boy Scouts membership dwindled and lawsuits piled up over the past decade, the organization went to court to challenge the terms agreements for the donation of land, the sale of land to developers or use it to raise funds.
Few years ago, a Las Vegas chapter listed its camp for $90 million through an agent who marketed the property as an “amazing developer opportunity” and noted “the striking natural surroundings offering unparalleled views “. Today, this property is operated by Bronco Off-Roadeo Nevada, where qualified Ford Bronco owners get together to talk shop and host personalized off-road courses — provided their vehicle was built after 2021. Elsewhere, former scout camps have been transformed into water parks or sold as turnkey resorts which could generate over $12,000 per month. One, which featured backup generators and 12 crew cabins, was sold to “a prominent southern Utah family,” said use it as a family retreat. Another is placed become a gated community with 131 homes – each with a two-car garage.
Not all scout camps are being converted into off-road courses or private resorts for the filthy rich: Recently in Maine, the local government matching donations through a conservation program to purchase property that a Boy Scouts chapter needed to offload to alleviate impending debt. Residents can still, for now, hike and camp on the 96 acres near Lewiston; again, this property was appraised at just over $400,000. (The camp is located far from the ocean, where luxury promoters don’t tend to hang out yet.)
In Connecticut, as in other states, two local conservationists challenged the legal status of the Boy Scouts to sell the land, alleging in a trial that the sale contradicts the organization’s mission. Keith Ainsworth, the attorney who filed the complaint, was an Eagle Scout many years ago, he says. At the time, “it was clear to me that conservation is a big part of what Scouting is” – not the “revenue maximization” he sees now.
Without intervention, however, it seems likely that all the valuable properties intended to instill awe of nature in American children will be turned into darker American recreation sites: amusement parks, vacation homes, survival complexes. “I think it takes an entity like the government to step in,” Kosnoff says, “or the properties will go to developers over time.”
By all accounts, the Boy Scouts of America is considering continue business after bankruptcy; after sharing all the assets the organization has acquired over a century and promising to provide stewardship, she says she will continue to persevere. And unless something changes, that likely will be without the Deer Lake camp – land purchased with money donated by people who believed in the importance of providing children with access to open spaces.