Photo: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images
The Deer Lake Scout Reservation in Killingworth, Connecticut was originally acquired for farmland in the 1960’s by a local Boy Scouts of America chapter. Not much has changed in the decades since: The 253 hectare camp is an expanse of spectacular rock formations and an immaculate waterfront where scouts ice climb, weekend hobbyists hike the trails and Bird watchers keep an eye out for ospreys. It is one of thousands of pristine forest properties owned by local Scout associations across the country, and it will be sold to the highest bidder.
When the scouts are in trouble, they tend to dump property. The organization has faced declining numbers for decades, but the child sex abuse lawsuits, which include more than 82,000 former Boy Scouts and are expected to result in a $2.6 billion settlement, signal something closer to an existential threat. At least $515 million of this settlement is being jointly contributed by local chapters, which is why so many of them have either recently sold their camps or announced their intention to sell them.
The Connecticut Yankee Council, which owns the Deer Lake property and directs the local scouting chapter, has already paid its $2.6 million share of the settlement to the national organization. But it’s trying to make big bucks from the sale, turning down two offers — one for $2.4 million — from eco-conscious groups wanting to keep the country as it is, in favor of a $4.6 million one -Dollar offer by Margaret Streicker, CEO of New York development group Fortitude Capital. Local residents launched a Save Deer Lake fundraiser, and local officials say they are frustrated by a bidding process that puts the Boy Scouts’ bottom line ahead of the common good: “I’m at my wits right now at the Yankee Council,” said a city voter told CT Insider this spring. Streicker has so far declined to detail her plans for the property, but said she sincerely hopes someone else can beat her bid.
These confrontations between conservationists and Boy Scout organizations often involve conflicting interpretations of decades-old charters created when early conservationists donated property to Boy Scouts on certain conditions — such as that the land remains a place for youth to appreciate nature. A lakeside property in Belgrade, Maine — a city where the population doubles in the summer — went to a private family earlier this year in a buy-and-sell deal despite a pending lawsuit from the attorney general and conservationists for an undisclosed sum Proponents on the terms of the original deed. In Florida, locals are trying to raise $1.1 million to buy a 60-acre camp on the Ocklawaha River recently put up for sale by Boy Scouts.
Every day, the US loses an estimated 6,000 acres of open space; The Boy Scouts of America own a sizable amount of just that kind of land – the kind of mountains and undeveloped forests that are disappearing by the second. And as the big Boy Scout land sell-off continues, it seems only crappy conservationists or benevolent developers could be able to keep it this way. How did a non-profit organization, best known today for its massive sexual abuse scandal, come to be the custodian of so much disappearing, valuable natural land? It took a century for the Boy Scouts to collect it. It takes a lot less time to lose.
Before the Boy Scouts were hit with abuse allegations rivaling those of the Catholic Church, the organization had spent a century building influence. John F. Kennedy was a boy scout – as were Bill Clinton and George HW Bush. Early oil barons like Waite Phillips donated a portion of their fortunes to the organization tasked with making the nation’s young into upright men. According to court documents, the Boy Scouts currently own more than $1 billion in assets, including extensive 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 I will do my best.”
The Boy Scouts own a lot of land. By some counts, the 200-odd local Boy Scout chapters own 2,000 camps, which do not include properties like Philmont Scout Ranch — a vast tract of mountainous wilderness in the Rocky Mountains managed by the national organization. In upstate New York alone, chapters control 35,000 acres (much of it valuable lakefront property), making the organization’s cumulative presence in the state greater than that of Disney World in Florida. Much of this land was donated by alumni of the organization or wealthy early conservationists like Virgil McCroskey and Harry Trexler – men who, in their turn of 20, might have grown up with a respect for the backcountry and wild, undeveloped land, just like them. The Scouts bought some of their land on their own with funds raised from local chapters. Until recently, the organization was a safe philanthropic bet.
In 2020, as the Boy Scouts of America faced thousands of individual lawsuits across the country, they filed for bankruptcy, freezing pending cases and ensuring future litigation would go to bankruptcy court. By the mandatory court date, more than 92,000 lawsuits had been filed by individuals alleging sexual abuse as children by the organization’s adults over several decades. The month-long trial ended in April; a bankruptcy judge, Laurie Silverstein, is reviewing the organization’s plan to set up a $2.7 billion settlement fund.
Through the process, the Boy Scouts’ property became a central part of their plan to pay survivors: as bankruptcy loomed in 2019, the national organization mortgaged the 140,000-acre Philmont Scout Ranch, the crown jewel of their property, to pay the expected expenses. (In previous years, probably in a similar attempt to raise money, the ranch had begun renting “luxury deluxe tents” with upgraded linens 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 case. “Sometimes you have thousands of feet of water in Long Island Sound.” According to Kosnoff, evidence presented during the trial suggests that 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 the Manatee River in Florida — an attractive riverfront property (where Spanish moss grows) that has been under development by developers since at least 2006 will be kept in mind… Until recently there were a number of camps in the Poconos and Puget Sound where homes are being offered for tens of millions of dollars, although many of these camps have already been sold. As Boy Scout membership declined and lawsuits mounted over the past decade, the organization went to court to challenge the terms of land donation agreements, sell land to developers, or clear land to raise funds.
A few years ago, a local Las Vegas group listed their camp for $90 million through a broker who marketed the property as an “extraordinary developer opportunity” and noted the “impressive natural setting with unparalleled views.” Today, this property is operated by Bronco Off-Roadeo Nevada, where qualified Ford Bronco owners gather to talk shop and host individual off-road courses – provided their vehicle was built after 2021. Elsewhere, old Boy Scout camps have been converted into water parks or sold as turnkey resorts that could generate as much as $12,000 a month. One, which had backup generators and 12 cabins for staff, was sold to “a prominent southern Utah family” who reportedly used it as a family retreat. Another is planned to be a condominium of 131 houses – each with a two-car garage.
Not all Boy Scout camps are converted into off-road courses or private properties for the filthy rich: Most recently, the local government in Maine matched donations under a conservation program to buy property a Boy Scout association had to dump to pay off its looming debt. Residents can still hike and camp on the 96 acres near Lewiston for now; On the other hand, this property was appraised at just over $400,000. (The camp is far from the ocean where luxury developers haven’t been yet.)
In Connecticut, as in other states, two local conservationists questioned the Boy Scouts’ legal standing to sell the land, claiming in a lawsuit that the sale contradicted the organization’s mission. Keith Ainsworth, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, was an Eagle Scout many years ago, he says. Back then, “I realized that conservation is a big part of what Boy Scouts are about” — not the “yield maximization” he sees today.
Without intervention, however, it seems likely that all the treasured properties designed to instill awe in America’s children for nature will be turned into more sombre places of American recreation: amusement parks, vacation homes, survivalist condominiums. “I think it takes an entity like the government to step in,” Kosnoff says, “or the plots will go to developers over time.”
According to all reports, the Boy Scouts of America plan to continue operations after the bankruptcy; After carving up all the property the organization has acquired over a century and promising to manage it, she says she will fight on. And if nothing changes, it will likely do without Camp at Deer Lake – land bought with cash donated by people who believed in the importance of giving children access to open spaces.